What to Expect When You Call 911

The view inside an ambulance as EMS workers help someone.

If you are calling 911, you are probably experiencing a stressful situation. Knowing what to expect may help alleviate some of that stress. Dialing 911 will ring a public safety access point (PSAP), usually a police department dispatch center. The dispatcher will ask you for the location of the emergency and the nature of the emergency. You may then be transferred to either a different, closer police dispatch center or to the nearest Fire/Emergency Medical Services (EMS) dispatch center, depending on what kind of response is most appropriate. The first dispatcher will remain on the line with you until the second dispatcher has answered the call. Law prohibits transferring a 911 call more than twice.   Keep in mind that during times of high 911 call volume, you may be directed to a recorded message until a dispatcher is available to answer your call.

The most important piece of information that the dispatcher will need is the location of the emergency. Help cannot come to you if the help doesn’t know where you are. In most jurisdictions, including Sacramento County, computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems allow dispatchers to automatically access a caller’s address and phone number if the caller is using a landline telephone. Automatic location information for cellphones is becoming more common but its accuracy may vary with how old the phone’s technology is and how many cell phone towers are nearby.

Regardless of what information comes up on the computer screen, at the Sacramento Regional Fire/Emergency Communications Center (SRFECC), the dispatcher’s first question will be: “Where is the emergency located?”

The next priority for the dispatcher will be to gather your phone number so that they can call you back in the event that you are disconnected. The dispatcher will then ask for the nature of the emergency. Once the location and type of emergency are established, the dispatcher will immediately alert the nearest response units and those units will respond to the emergency. The response may consist of a fire engine and an ambulance, a police unit, or even several of each depending on the situation.

911 dispatchers are highly trained, uniformed public safety officials.  They endeavor to dispatch emergency response units as quickly as possible. Once units are on the way, the dispatcher may end the call - for instance if you are reporting a vehicle accident for which they have already received multiple calls. Conversely, the dispatcher may continue to ask questions so that they can pass on to the response units the clearest picture of what is going on at the emergency. The dispatcher may also give you potentially life-saving instructions such as directing you to immediately exit a burning structure or how to perform CPR on an unresponsive person. Do not hang up until the dispatcher instructs you to do so.

Call 911 whenever you experience an emergency. Be prepared to provide the location of the emergency and your phone number. Do your best to stay calm and answer the dispatcher’s questions. The dispatcher is a highly-trained professional who will send help to you as soon as possible. Follow the dispatcher’s instructions - it may save a life.