Ever wonder what it’s like answering 9-1-1 Emergency calls?  These are real stories from actual 9-1-1 calls providing an inside-look at the world of emergency communications: the good, the bad, the funny, and the sad; and how it all affects the dispatchers who answer those calls 24/7/365.

The Freeway Complex Fire

Saturday, November 15, 2008.

At the moment my alarm sounded, I instantly regretted agreeing to cover a shift for a coworker who needed the day off.  Normally, I didn’t mind.  I was single with no kids so I didn’t have the family responsibilities that all of my coworkers did.  I often switched and traded shifts to try and help coworkers out because the flexibility of my schedule allowed me to do so.  This was different though.  My regular work schedule had me working weekday graveyard, but today I agreed to work day shift.  The jokes about graveyard shift workers feeling like vampires during the day are true.  The sun had never felt so bright or so hot until I stepped out my backdoor that morning.

I plugged in my headset and logged on to computer systems at my console at 9:00 am.  I had my glass of ice tea with lemon and a textbook I was reading for a class for my Master’s degree.  I looked around the communications center and noticed none of my partners were on the phone.  There were no phone lines lighting up.  Strange.  All seemed right in the world.  That feeling lasted five minutes.

The first call I answered was at 9:05 am.  It was the direct ring-down line from the fire department.  I clicked on the line and said, “Hi Fire.”

“Hey PD”, the fire dispatcher responded.  I could tell there was something wrong because in the background I could hear several different alarms and alert tones sounding which seemed unusual.  “Just want to give you heads up… we’re responding to a brush fire in the riverbed in the area of the 91/71 freeways.  Don’t need any help at this time, but it looks to be growing fast.  I’ll call you back with updates.”  Click.

This raised immediate concern.  The year 2008 had already proven to be one of the busiest fire seasons to date in Northern and Central California.  The extreme heat combined with the lack of rain made for very dry conditions.  Throw in some Santa Ana Winds to those already dry conditions and you have a perfect storm for a wildfire to blaze out of control.  Thankfully there were not many rural areas in the urban sprawl of Orange County, but this area of the 91/71 freeway interchange happened to be one such spot consisting of dry shrubs on rolling hills that separated Orange and Riverside Counties.

I notified my supervisor and coworkers.  This freeway interchange was only a few miles outside of our jurisdiction, so our communications and field personnel closest on that side of town were on high alert.  Sadly, within about thirty minutes I was looking out the windows of our center and I could see a long funnel of billowing smoke rise up into the sky.  And that is when the phone calls started.

Photo by Erik Nielsen.

Photo by Erik Nielsen.

“Hi 911, I see smoke in the sky.”  “Yes 911, I smell something burning.”  “911 come quick, there’s a big fire.”  The calls flooded in.

“Hold on, don’t hang up, I’m going to transfer you to the fire department”, I would tell callers.  I could tell the fire dispatchers were getting overwhelmed.  They were busy trying to organize field personnel and handle the influx in calls.  And from the looks of the smoke out the window, this fire was only getting bigger.  Fire resources became stretched.  They called neighboring fire agencies for mutual aid to help battle the brush fire.  Soon, I stopped transferring callers to the fire department and simply told them, “The fire department is aware of the incident and they are on-scene working it now.”  Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a very long shift.

At 10:30 am, the fire department recalled and asked for police assistance with evacuations and road closures.  The fire had quickly ravaged dry brush and was burning up the hills towards the southwest threatening a neighborhood of homes.  The windy conditions were not helping.    Hot embers flew in the sky and ignited trees several blocks away.  Sporadic patches of small fires popped up everywhere.

Front-line emergency telecommunicators had it the worst.  The sound of ringing phone lines was all you could hear in the communications center that day.  Fielding 911 calls from people begging and pleading that emergency resources be sent to their home because it was about to be destroyed.  Some callers were standing on the street in front of their homes as they helplessly watched roaring flames engulf their memories and prized possessions.  There is nothing we could say that could even begin to console these callers.  And there were so many.  On that day between 9am-6pm, 12 telecommunicators answered over 5,200 phone calls.

The Freeway Complex Fire burned over 30,000 acres; over 300 structures were destroyed (including residential homes and commercial buildings) causing $16 million worth of damages; over 3,800 fire personnel battled the blaze with 16 helicopters.  Homes, schools, and businesses in the area were evacuated.  Two major freeways in the area were completely shut down, putting gridlock traffic to a halt.  The American Red Cross sent personnel to assist with disaster relief efforts and temporary shelters for those displaced.


It is difficult to work as an emergency telecommunicator when bad things happen to people caused by other people, but even more so when bad things happen that are caused by nature.  Natural disasters caused by extreme weather conditions that wreak havoc on our populations remind us how small we are as humans in this great, big world because some things are still completely out of our control.  That is a hard day to be a dispatcher.


California, State of, & CALFIRE. (2008, November 19). Freeway Complex Fire General Information. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/incidents/incidents_details_info?incident_id=305