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.
It was a weekday night in early summer. I started my graveyard shift at 6pm, but it was still light outside as the sun slowly set at 8pm. Weekdays were always hit or miss on how busy it was; most of the time it was relatively “quiet” because it was a work/school night so there was no time for much shenanigans to occur. This was NOT one of those nights…
It was busy, crazy busy. Answer a call, type real fast, done. Ring ring ring! Answer another call, type faster, done. Unfortunately, when it was busy like that it left very little time to otherwise converse with callers. No time for small talk, straight to business. What is your emergency and how can we help? And that is when Frank called 9-1-1…
“911 Emergency”, my recording sounded off as I answered his call. I wondered how many times I would have to listen to myself say that on recording over the next 12 hours.
“Hi, I need some help. My neighbor next door is throwing snails over the fence from his back yard, and they are landing in my back yard”.
There was a long awkward silence. I was waiting for the caller to continue and sum up why exactly this was an emergency for which he felt the need to call 9-1-1. Maybe the snails were exploding on impact of hitting the ground in the caller’s back yard because they were armed with some illegal, explosive device? Yeah that would justify a 9-1-1 call. But if snail guts were flying everywhere, could that be a HAZMAT incident for fire to respond? My imagination was creatively wandering when the silence brought be back and I realized that was it, there was nothing more to the story.
“Sir, you called 9-1-1. Do you have an emergency?”, I asked.
“Well, yeah. My neighbor next door is throwing snails over the fence from his back yard, and they are landing in my back yard,” the caller repeated.
“What is your name sir?”
“Frank, have you tried to go next door to talk to your neighbor? Ask him why he’s tossing snails over the fence?”, I asked. This is it, I thought. Surely Frank went next door only to be confronted by his neighbor who pulled out a bazooka, or maybe the apocalypse had occurred and the neighbor had turned into a zombie after contracting a deadly virus from the snails. Those would be good reasons to call 9-1-1.
But instead Frank replied, “No, that’s why I’m calling you.”
“First of all Frank, this is not an emergency. You should not be calling 9-1-1 for this. Go talk to your neighbor. Try to work it out like mature, responsible, civilized adults. If that doesn’t work, then try calling the non-emergency number to the police”, I said.
“Now wait here just a goddamn minute!”, his tone immediately changed clearly unhappy with my response. “You’re telling me there ain’t a @$%& *@#$! thing you’re gonna do to help me?!”
“I just did help you Frank. I gave you instructions on what to do to try and resolve the issue”, I replied.
“I’m a tax paying citizen! I pay your salary! You need to help me with this right now!”, Frank shouted through the phone.
Ohhhh here we go, I thought. The ole “My taxes pays your salary” argument. I always loved this selfish sense of entitlement that people felt the need to demand after they were given information that was unsatisfactory to them. I wanted to verbally jab back with people like this so many times. I had a black belt in verbal judo and always enjoyed a good challenge with unreasonable people who twisted things to solely suit their own interests.
“Frank, I live in this city too. I also pay taxes, so according to your reasoning I pay my own salary. Now, try talking to your neighbor. If that doesn’t work, then call the non-emergency number and I’ll try to help you more then”, I said.
“Wait. You answer the non-emergency number too???”, Frank asked.
“Yes sir, I do.”
“Well, (expletive) me!”, Frank said in disgust. I smiled seeing the exact moment that Frank realized his attempt to backdoor and go around me to get what he wanted would be unsuccessful.
“There’s a hundred… no, no, no… a thousand snails in my back yard that the neighbor has thrown over! What should I do with them?”, he asked.
“I can’t advise you what to do, or what not to do, about snails. There’s no rush to decide because they’re not going anywhere fast.” Pun intended.
“I’m afraid to go talk to my neighbor because I think he has guns in his house”, Frank said.
Ohhhh geeeeez! Why?! Why do people have to be so… deep sigh. I looked at my computer and noticed I had been going back-and-forth with Frank for more than 5 minutes on this ridiculous call. Several other 9-1-1 lines had been ringing during my conversation and I was leaving my other partners high and dry handling real emergencies while I went round and round with Frank. “Fine Frank, I will send a police officer by to help you with the snails in your back yard as soon as I can, but we are very busy right now so please be patient”, I finally said.
I stared at my computer trying to figure out how to type up this call without looking like a complete buffoon. It was always bad when officers in the field called up to dispatch wanting to speak to a supervisor about a call to which they were dispatched. It made call-taking dispatchers feel incompetent, as if somehow we were incapable of resolving complaints that were clearly NOT police/public-safety related. And thus, I carefully summarized the conversation I had with Frank, making sure to clearly articulate the need for officers to respond.
Frank called back several times in the next 3 hours, upset over the delay in police officers responding to his complaint. Thankfully, the officer who finally responded to Frank’s house had a sense of humor and dispo’d the call with the following notes:
“Located 10 snails in Frank’s back yard, all cooperative. Unable to locate the other 990 the caller originally complained about. Unknown if they parachuted over the fence, or burrowed a tunnel underneath it to escape neighbor’s back yard. Snails given warning for trespassing, agreed to relocate to the public street.”