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What happens when you call 9-1-1?

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San Diego fire dispatch center“9-1-1, What is Your Emergency?” When you need help, these words are your lifeline. The dispatcher, never seen and rarely thanked, is often your last hope.

Where does my call go?

When you call 9-1-1, you are sent to your local law-enforcement dispatcher—police, sheriff or California Highway Patrol (CHP). The appropriate agency is determined by the following:

  • Land line: The phone’s location determines the proper law enforcement agency.
  • Cell phone: About 80% of 9-1-1 calls are from cell phones. Newer cell phones have GPS capabilities that allow dispatch to determine your location.Older phones without sophisticated GPS technology, however, only allow dispatch computers to triangulate your approximate location from the cell towers transmitting the call.
  • Freeway (cell phone) calls: These are automatically sent to the CHP.

The 9-1-1 law enforcement operator will do his or her best to determine your location and the nature of the emergency. If it is a police emergency, you will remain with police dispatch, however if you have a fire or medical emergency, the call is automatically routed to a fire department dispatch center.

Fire Dispatch Centers

There are nine fire dispatch centers in San Diego County:

  • Military bases: Camp Pendleton; Miramar Air Station; and military bases around San Diego harbor area
  • US Forest Service
  • San Diego City: San Diego, Poway, and South Bay cities
  • North Comm: Del Mar north and west of I-15
  • Escondido City
  • Heartland: La Mesa east to Alpine and Spring Valley north to Lakeside & Santee
  • Cal Fire (Monte Vista): all remaining rural portions of San Diego County

Once fire dispatch receives the location and nature of the emergency, that information is entered into the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. CAD automatically determines the appropriate units to send depending on the location and nature of the emergency.

The dispatch system is borderless, in that it automatically sends the closest fire units regardless of the jurisdiction. The closest unit is determined not by the closest fire station, but through the use of Automatic Vehicle Locators (AVL), which know the location of every fire unit in San Diego County, whether it is in the station or out on the road.

Who Are The Dispatchers?

Dispatchers must have a calm temperament and be able to deal with all kinds of people. “The activity level can be very quiet and then a flurry of calls comes in with multiple emergencies. The room becomes extremely active.” Tracy Lynn, San Diego City Fire Dispatch Administrator.

Training lasts for approximately 10 weeks, and then new hires are monitored closely on the job for another several months to make sure they have access to the expertise required to respond to different situations.

The calls dispatchers get are anything from accidental “butt dials” to life or death assistance needed. Dispatchers never know what is coming, how the call will go, or if they will learn the outcome. They will tell you that the hardest calls they deal with relate to the death of a child or officer involved shootings. But there are positive calls too. “It is not uncommon for a dispatcher to save a life or bring a new life into the world by providing instruction on CPR or child birth. Sometimes people contact us to say thank you.” Lynn says. “Those are great days.”

If the emergency requires the dispatcher to stay on the call to get more information, help the reporting party provide medical treatment, or monitor a child, they will do that. However according to Lynn, “children are often far more calm than adults in emergency situations.”

As dispatchers gather more information from the original caller or subsequent callers on the same incident, they pass that along to the fire units which are already enroute to that emergency. Fire units upon arriving at the scene of the incident can request more units or cancel units which were dispatched but are not needed at the scene.

What to do when you call 9-1-1

Recently one of our Fire Foundation supporters was telling that she handed a cell phone to her daughter at a restaurant, and her daughter accidentally called 9-1-1. Mortified, our supporter, Trisha, yelled for her daughter to hang up. Unbeknownst to both, dispatch had already picked up the call. The phone then rang in her daughter’s hand and the screen read 9-1-1. They stared at the phone, terrified. How much trouble were they in?

As critical as the role of the dispatcher is in successfully handling an emergency, they can not help you unless you give them the right information.

  1. Do not call 9-1-1 for non-emergencies—Call police or fire business lines.
  2. Do not hang up. Be patient. If you hang up and call back you will be at the bottom of the queue.
  3. If you accidently call (including “butt dials”) 9-1-1, stay on the line and let the dispatcher know it was an accident and that you are okay. If you hang up, they waste time trying to call you back to make sure you are not being held against your will or have become unconscious. If you do not answer when they call they will send personnel out to do a welfare check. The County of San Diego Communications Office stated, “It’s a scenario that plays out hundreds of times a day across San Diego County. People are calling 9-1-1 and hanging up. It’s most likely an accident, but it takes time away from those who really need help.” A recent study reported that approximately 30% of all 9-1-1 calls are inadvertent.
  4. Know your location. When talking to the dispatcher, be calm and clear. Give your location first, so if the call is lost, they know where the incident is located. Second, quickly describe the emergency, so they can send the right emergency vehicles, then give supplemental information.
  5. Stay put. If you are driving and continue to drive, the dispatcher can not send a unit to help you. It would be a waste of time and resources to send a fire truck or medical unit to a location if you are not there when it arrives.

Trisha took the phone from her child and answered the 9-1-1 call. The dispatcher asked her location and if the child was hers. After clearing up the mistake, and apologizing profusely, Trisha asked the dispatcher why she had called back. The dispatcher said, “what if someone had taken the child, and that call was the child’s one chance to let someone know where they were?” Trisha hung up with a different kind terror, knowing from the dispatcher’s tone that she had probably taken those calls before.