While 911 is a nationwide phone number, the policies governing its use vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some towns allow citizens to call 911 for any incident requiring police, fire, or medical assistance, while others restrict its use to true emergencies.
But regardless of the policies in place, there are certain dos and don’ts that always apply when calling 911. Some people never had a proper 911 education while growing up, so some don't know the proper dos and don'ts of calling 911. As a service to PSAP dispatchers - to enable them to focus on real emergencies and get help where it’s needed as quickly as possible - we’ve put together a list of emergency communication tips the public should do and should not do when dialing 911.
Even if non-emergency calls are allowed in your jurisdiction, too many of them clog up the phone lines and prevent public safety answering point agents from dealing efficiently with true emergencies. Only call 911 for serious medical problems, life-threatening situations, fires, and crimes in progress. For all other situations, such as crimes where the suspect is already gone, or accidents that only involve property damage, call the police at their regular 7-digit number.
While it isn't illegal to prank call 911, a prank call to 911 could be taken over a phone call for an actual emergency, which could result in a delayed emergency response to the scene of the crime or accident, and could potentially result in death for the victim.
If all lines are busy, you may hear a recording when you call 911. Don’t hang up and call back, though – this will cause you to lose your place in the line, and you will have to wait even longer. The system is programmed to hold your call and automatically route it to the next available PSAP agent, so staying on the line is your best bet for quick help.
Instead, stay on the line and explain to the PSAP dispatcher that you called by accident. Otherwise, you’ll be placing an extra burden on the PSAP, as they are required to call you back to see if there is actually an emergency – and if you don’t answer, they will send the police out to check on you. When calling 911, it's also important to not hang up until the dispatchers says to do so in case they may have more questions that are important for you to answer.
There are many details the PSAP agent will need to obtain about your situation before help can be sent. Cell phones do not provide pinpointed location information, and sometimes 911 calls can be routed to public safety answering points that are some distance from your location, so giving a complete location description is vital. In addition, the 911 call center agent will need to obtain descriptions of the people involved in the emergency, as well as any vehicles. Becoming impatient with all the questions will only make it take that much longer until help arrives.
When answering the questions, give clear details as to what is going on so the dispatcher can effectively get you the help you need.
You may be directed to perform CPR, to hide somewhere, or to take other action, depending on the nature of the emergency. Don’t argue and don’t hesitate – 911 agents dispatchers are trained professionals, who have gone through 911 training, and who know the best way to help people experiencing emergencies. By following what the dispatcher recommends for you to do, you are helping the situation at hand.
You may feel there’s no further need to stay on the line, but emergencies are, by their very nature, unpredictable. It may turn out that you’ll need to open a door for the police, or flag down a fire truck, if they can’t find you easily. Stay on the line until the PSAP dispatcher lets you know it’s alright to hang up.
By following these six dos and don’ts of calling 911, you’ll be allowing PSAP dispatchers to focus on what’s important, and get their job done. The other victims they are able to help because of your considerate behavior will be grateful – and so will they.