When life or property is in jeopardy, 911 operators are usually the first line of defense in avoiding a tragedy. Knowing this, they offer some advice to help them do their job more effectively and to increase the chances of keeping a bad situation from ending in disaster.
Communications Officer Stefanie Gentes is a 911 dispatcher for the City of Sedalia. She answers thousands of calls a year ranging from vehicle checks to structure fires. After more than two years on the job, she said having the appropriate information ready before an emergency can undoubtedly save lives.
“The very first thing and the most important, is to know where they are,” Gentes said. “Get accurate location information. A lot of times people will say, ‘I’m in Sedalia.’ That doesn’t help me. Or they’ll say, ‘I’m on Broadway.’ Well, Broadway runs the entire length of the town.”
Gentes said even if the caller does not have all the specific details of the situation or the parties involved, by providing a location first, the dispatchers can get police and first responders moving in their direction.
“I don’t even have to know what’s wrong, and I can get someone started that way. That way if the call gets disconnected, we at least have someone on the way to check,” Gentes said.
Wireless devices also create unique problems because they do not allow dispatchers to see the details of a location they would normally see with landline calls. Gentes said if possible, callers should have a call back number readily available.
“If you’re on 911 (on a cellular device), sometimes we can get a location in the general area. It’s very rarely exact. Most of our calls can put them with in so many feet. It can be a hundred feet. It can be 200 feet, so it narrows it down, but it doesn’t really tell us,” she said. “Everybody thinks that we can automatically trace calls like they do on TV, but we can’t. Even caller ID doesn’t always show us who we’re talking to.”
Children, sometimes very young children, have saved the lives of a parent or loved one by calling 911 in an emergency. Authorities say to make sure children can reach at least one phone in the home and that they know their parent’s name, phone number and address as well as the proper way and reasons for calling emergency services.
“Teach your kids their address and phone number and their parents’ names. It’s very important they know who they are and where they are. A lot of kids don’t know their parents’ names — they‘re just mom and dad,” Gentes said. “So they say, ‘Mom won’t wake up.’ Well, who’s your mom? And they say, ‘I don’t know.’ Well that makes it very difficult if the child doesn’t know where they are and doesn’t know their mom’s name.”
While it may be very difficult in an emergency situations, authorities ask that you try to remain as calm as possible when calling 911. Take a breath, and try to answer the dispatcher’s questions so they can do their job as swiftly as possible.
“Some people you cannot calm down,” Gentes said. “Some people you have to try to talk over. Some people are just in an extreme situation that they have never been in before.”
Authorities say they cannot stress enough how important it is to only call 911 if it is an actual emergency. The National Emergency Number Association defines a 911 emergency as any serious situation where a law enforcement officer, fire fighter, or emergency medical help is needed right away.
“I’ve had people call asking for phone numbers like, ‘what’s the number for the police department in Independence?’ Well, that’s not an emergency,” Gentes said. “We get people calling 911 to tell us there is a dog in their yard. People call and ask us legal questions. That’s not what 911 is for, and it ties us up.”
Accidental calls to 911, the bulk of which are “butt dials” or children playing with the phone, also bog operators down and waste police resources. Gentes said to make sure the battery is removed before giving a child an old phone to play with because even an inactive phone can call emergency services.
In 2013, the department answered 6,216 calls for service. Of those, 2,817 were hang-ups. The second highest numbers of calls were for medical, reported at 933 calls. Third were calls for a disturbance, reported at 508. While this is not a complete list, other highly reported incidents were: accident (330), subject check (244), domestic (200), theft (124), traffic complaints (117), burglary (110), fire (57), sex crime (28), and narcotics (6).
In 2014, the department has taken 2,422 calls as of May 23.