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.
While I was still a Cadet, I was assigned to work a 6-month rotation in dispatch communications. I was given a crash-course in emergency communications, 9-1-1 call-taking, and line of questioning. Then, I was paired to work with a Communications Training Officer (CTO), a veteran dispatcher responsible for shadowing my every move to ensure calls were handled quickly, appropriately, and within department policy. It was about my 2nd-3rd week into this training when I was finally allowed to answer 9-1-1 calls. And this is one of the first 9-1-1 calls I ever answered…
In the middle of a weekday afternoon, the phones were busy, so much so that my CTO made me take a break so she could handle some of the calls because she could do so much more quickly than I could. As things began to calm down, a couple of 9-1-1 lines lit up red on my computer monitor. I looked over at my CTO and she gracefully gave me a head nod and said, “You’re on”.
I hesitantly clicked the “Answer” button and one of the 9-1-1 ringing lines changed to green, indicating I had answered the call. I remember hearing my recording sound-off, “9-1-1 Emergency”. It was my voice, but it was a recording that played every time I answered an incoming call so that I would not have to say “9-1-1 Emergency” 200 times that day for all the calls I would answer in my 12-hour shift. I was thinking, “Does my voice really sound like that?”, when an elderly female brought me back to reality.
“Hello? Helllllooooooooo?”, she said. I almost laughed out loud because the sound of her voice was so frail, I imagined this sweet, little, old lady on the other end of the line.
“Yes ma’am, you called 9-1-1. Do you have an emergency?”, I asked. My CTO clicked on the line so she could listen in and direct me, or take the call over, if needed.
“Well yes dear. You see, there is something wrong with the, the… ohhhhhh what do you call those things in your house that light up red for the fire department… well, there’s something wrong with it and it’s making a weird beeping sound”, she said.
“Oh, you mean the smoke alarm. Is there something wrong with it?”, I asked. I looked over at my CTO and just saw her shaking her head at me, as if to tell me she would have already had this call handled by now and I needed to be quicker because other emergency lines were already ringing.
“I guess so. Can you send a fireman out to fix it?”, she said in the most innocent tone.
“Yes, let me give you the phone number to call the fire department”.
“Oh dear, you’re gonna gimmie the number to call?”, she asked in disbelief.
“Yes ma’am, let me know when you are ready.”
“Ok. Ok. Go ahead dear”. Hahaha, she keeps calling me dear, I thought.
“It’s 765-4000”, I said.
“765-4000”, I repeated.
“Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh?”, her old voice moaned in confusion.
“Yeah I got that dear. What’s the last part?”, she interrupted.
“4000”, I said, again.
“Four thousand”, I carefully enunciated.
“Four what?”, she asked.
“Thousand”, I repeated, again.
“A thousand?”, she asked.
“No, no, no. Let’s start over. 765…”.
“765”, she repeated.
“Four zero zero zero”, I slowly said.
“Then what?”, she asked. Deep sigh. This could take all day, I thought. A police officer could have responded to her house by now!
“Zero”, I said.
“Another zero”, I said.
“And one more zero”. As soon as I said that I realized my mistake…
“A one?”, she asked. Oh for the love of… I dropped my head to let my forehead hit the desk at my work station. Deep sigh. I notice my CTO quietly giggling and shaking her head giving me this look like I was the big dummy who just messed up all the progress I had made.
“A zero?”, she asked in confusion.
“4-0-0-0?”, she asked.
“You got it!!!!”.
“Ok dear, that’s the fire department and they’re gonna help me?”, she asked, like I had completely wasted her time.
“Yes ma’am, give them a call”.
“Ok dearie, thank you”, and she hung up before I could say goodbye.
By now, my CTO is nearly rolling on the ground in laughter. “Ryan, please tell your grandma to stop calling you at work”, is all she could manage to say. Deep sigh. Within a minute, she had typed up this message about “Ryan’s old grandma” and sent that recording to all the other dispatchers working on our shift that day so they could listen to it. The messages soon started to fly… “Damn Ryan, your grandma sounds as old as Methuselah”… “Ryan, what’s the phone number to the fire department???”… “Wait, wait, wait, what comes after the 4???”… “Is she gonna make you brownies since you gave her the number?”. Grrrrrrrrrrr!!!
The batteries were dying in the smoke detector mounted on the wall in the caller’s house, causing the detector to intermittently chirp with a loud beeping sound the caller was hearing. I think this call went down in department history. For a long time, it was used as training purposes for newly hired dispatchers and we often played it at the department’s Citizen’s Academy for the public to hear and have a good chuckle at my expense. I learned lots of different people call 9-1-1. People of all different ages, races, and language backgrounds. You have to handle each caller differently, and sometimes with very gentle gloves.