top of page

Calling 911

On Thursday July 8, 1937, Mrs. John Stanley Beard placed the first 999 call in Hampstead, London, to report a burglar outside of her home. The suspect was apprehended, and thus began the first emergency call system we in the United States now refer to as 911.

In 1957, Sydney Australia implemented their service, 999. New Zealand followed quickly that year with its own 111 system. Canada followed in 1967, and in January 1968 the telephone company AT&T introduced the first 911 system in the United States, which affected all those with Bell Telephone (AT&T) service. The following years saw many communities creating their own 911 systems. Finally, on October 26, 1999, President Clinton signed a bill designating 911 the national emergency number.

Now 22 years later, how much do we really know about how 911 works? During a recent HAM radio conference, I attended a class designed to teach HAMs exactly how to report to the 911 system during an emergency. I was surprised by just how much there is to understand about a service we all take for granted.

First, let me remind you that 911 is for emergency use only. Emergencies include accidents involving an injury, physical danger from an assailant, a serious threat to property, fire, hit-and-run accidents, car-jackings (when there is still a person other than the thief in the car), burglaries in progress and medical emergencies.

A call should never be placed to 911, but rather a non-emergency police phone number should be used, when reporting loud noises, fraud, stolen cars, larceny, lost pets, missing persons (unless they have diminished capacity), a burglary that has already taken place, and non-injury accidents.

There is a protocol to be aware of when calling for help. A 911 dispatcher will ask questions to determine, based upon your answers, just whom to dispatch to help with your problem. For this reason it is vital that you remain calm and answer questions in the order they are asked. When you fail to do this you delay getting help.

For example, if you report someone has been shot and the operator can hear arguing or loud voices in the background, he will not dispatch an ambulance until the police can get there to assess the risk to ambulance personnel. The dispatcher’s first priority is the safety of rescue personnel.

It’s all about location, location, location. When answering this question you should always give the address where help is needed. If you are witnessing a disturbance at the neighbor’s home, do not delay getting help to them by giving your address. If you don’t know their address, give yours with further directions, such as, help is needed at the green house across the street from……. (insert your address). Be as specific as possible.

Since location is the most important information you can provide during an emergency, remember when hiring babysitters that you always provide not only the information they may need in order to find you, but also leave a note with your address just in case they need to call 911 before you arrive home.

It has been the assumption of many that the address from which the call originates will show up on a screen at the dispatch center. This is not always true. Addresses do not appear when you are calling from a cell phone or VOIP, and they often will not show up for landlines. When giving your address, include the name of the nearest cross street. If you are using a cell phone and have less than a minute left on your charge, give your address immediately. If you are being threatened or hiding from danger give your address immediately. Remember an operator cannot trace your cell phone and without the address they are helpless. Always assume the operator does not know where you are.

When you call the non-emergency police, fire or hospital numbers, dispatchers will never know your location. Again remember – location, location, location.

You may also have assumed that if you have GPS on your cell phone, this can be used to trace your location. This is also not true. GPS is for your use; that’s it. If you are not at a familiar location, learn to recognize compass directions and use them when giving directions. Also, use mile markers and distinctive landmarks.

Once you have made contact with the dispatcher, do not hang up until help has arrived.

You may not be aware that any cell phone with a charge can be used to dial 911 even if you are not currently paying for a plan. If you give your child an old phone to play with, take out the batteries to avoid accidental 911 calls.

Now that you have given your location, it is time to explain your emergency. Do not discuss who is involved; focus on the problem. For example, “I am calling to report a burglary in progress,” or “I am calling to report a fire.” If you think about these different scenarios you will quickly understand that the operator will ask you very different questions to understand the situation and what help is needed.

In cases of burglary, the question will be whether the perpetrator is still present and does he have a weapon? In cases of fire, you might be asked if everyone is out of the building or if more than one structure is involved.

Don’t keep telling the operator to hurry or asking if they have sent help. There is usually more than one operator in the room, and all may be working together to dispatch help. Once your location and the nature of the emergency are known, be assured that help is on the way. Listen and answer the questions calmly.

Never assume someone has already called in an emergency. A call from someone passing an accident is good, but one from someone who has actually stopped is far better. Conversely, do not assume someone who has stopped has called for help. If they are trying to extricate someone from a car leaking fuel they will not have taken time to make a call.

Teach your children to use 911. There is a great book that has been recommended by a friend who is a 911 dispatcher to help you teach your children. It’s called It’s Time to Call 911: What to do in an Emergency.

Children should be taught their address and should be taught to spell it. It is very difficult to distinguish between an address on Peach Street and one on Beech Street. Your children should also know their phone number, including area code.

Children should be taught when to call 911, as the list of reasons may be different from the events for which an adult would call. For example, children should call if they cannot wake up a parent or other adult in the home, if they or some other child sees or finds a gun, if another child has an accident, when anyone is hurt and can’t get up, if they are lost, if someone is trying to get into the house, if they see someone with a gun, if they see an accident, or if they see an animal attacking someone. They should be taught that in the case of fire in your home they should not call 911 until they have left the house. Calls should be made from the neighbor’s home or using a cell phone while standing across the street.

Recently, my 911 dispatcher friend received a call from a child. He said his mom was sick and wouldn’t wake up. He told her they were in a car and he didn’t know where they were. The dispatcher asked if he recognized any of the buildings or stores that he could see. He said no. He then mentioned that there was a sign on the building and he could read the letters but he didn’t know the words. She told him to read the letters and he slowly stated “E-M-E-R-G-E-N-C-Y”. They were in the parking lot at the hospital. If your children don’t know how to read but know the alphabet, teach them to read the letters on nearby signs to the operator. Practice as you drive to a store asking them to read signs.

Next time help is needed from 911, remember that help arrives much more quickly, and is much more likely to be the help you really need, if you remain calm and simply answer the 911 operator’s questions.

©Copyright 2021 Carolyn Nicolaysen,

All rights reserved. Duplication, redistribution or retransmission of this work is strictly prohibited without express written consent of the author.

35 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page