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How Does 911 Dispatch Work?

Every year, 240 million 911 calls are made, equalling almost 600,000 calls for emergency response every day.

While there’s no question about how important the 911 emergency system is, it can be daunting to think about how it works for hundreds of thousands of communities across the United States. So how does 911 dispatch work?

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about this special emergency system for public safety. Keep reading to learn more.

How Does 911 Dispatch Work?

Compared to other emergency services in the United States, using 911 is actually a relatively new concept. The first time 911 was used to make a call was in 1968. To put that in perspective, other emergency services like firefighting have been going strong since the 1600s.

However, the system for police dispatch using 911 is very simple. Whenever someone is in an emergency system and needs help, they just need to remember the three numbers to call. This works in both the United States and Canada because they both share the same telephone switching system.

The great thing about dialing 9-1-1 is that it works for just about any emergency that a person might have. It can work for:

  • Fires
  • Crimes
  • Car accidents
  • Chemical spills
  • Medical emergencies
  • Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms going off
  • Any other life-threatening situation

From an outside perspective, it’s so simple that even a child that sees an emergency can understand to pick up the phone and reach the emergency hotline. However, it gets a little bit more complicated behind the scenes.

How 911 Call Centers Work

Despite what you may think, there isn’t just a single 911 call center that answers every emergency in the country. Call centers that answer 911 calls are called Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAP. Sometimes, these centers are also known as Emergency Communication Centers, or ECCs.

Right now, there are more than 8,000 PSAPs operating in the US alone. These are further broken down into primary and secondary PSAPs. When someone first dials 911, they’ll reach the dispatch terminal of a primary PSAP, which is most often a law enforcement agency.

Secondary PSAPs are where the calls are transferred depending on the situation that the caller is in. These most often cover emergencies like medical situations or lower priority situations.

Right now, there are 26 PSAPs in Los Angeles County alone. They take the first call, then transfer you to whatever department you need if it doesn’t must the law enforcement agency.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t make a call to 911 dispatchers for a different area. For example, if you’re currently in Florida, but you have a relative in New York that is having an emergency situation, you can still call your local 911 to help. As long as you clearly explain the situation, they should be able to connect with the PSAP in New York.

The Professional Call Taker On the End of the Line

Although it might seem a bit jarring getting transferred from person to person the first time you call 911, don’t worry. The call taker on the other end of the line are professionals that are specially trained to get you to exactly where you need to go during your emergency to keep you safe.

For example, they know exactly what to do if you’ve been kidnapped or someone has broken into your home.

If you do need to be transferred, the secondary PSAP is also highly trained to help you in whatever situation you need. They’ll quickly ask you questions and give you advice on how to best handle the situation until help arrives.

For example, if you are calling 911 about someone that is having a heart attack in front of you, they’ll quickly get the information they need to send ambulances to your exact location. Then they’ll provide the caller with important information on what to do for the patient, like giving them CPR.

The Importance of Location

Another aspect of the 911 call that might throw callers off is how often the emergency call takers ask for your location. Every time you speak to someone new on the emergency line, they will ask for your specific location as well as the phone number that you’re calling from — sometimes even twice from every person.

This means that you might end up giving the same location and phone number around four to six times. However, this isn’t because they weren’t paying attention or they forgot.

In any emergency, the most important piece of information that you give the call taker is the location. This is critical in sending help to the exact location as quickly as possible.

One common misconception is that PSAPs always know the location of the caller at the end of the line. Although they do have technology that can help find the location (known as Enhanced 911), it isn’t always accurate and usually only works for landlines, which are quickly becoming older technology.

Communicating Both Ways

When you speak to emergency call takers, you’ll likely notice how many questions they ask. They are trained to ask very specific questions in a certain order. Some people might be thrown off by this because they just want to quickly explain their emergency and move on.

However, this doesn’t work because not all people communicate the same way. By following this “roadmap,” emergency call takers can quickly get the information they need and contact the right emergency resources (such as the police, fire station, or medical services) and get them to the location as quickly as possible.

When it comes to communication, there’s one very important thing you need to remember: don’t hang up. The dispatcher will let you know when they have all the information they need, so it’s important to stay calm and listen carefully.

It’s important to be patient with them because they are getting all the information you are saying down while “communicating” on the other side to emergency services.

The Technological Backbone of 911 Call Centers

While the foundation of 911 dispatch lies in the dedication and skill of the professionals at the helm, technology plays an indispensable role in streamlining the process. Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) today utilize advanced computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems to efficiently handle, prioritize, and route emergency calls. Cloud-native solutions including public safety cloud, are revolutionizing this landscape, offering scalability, resilience, and real-time data integration to ensure that every call gets the timely response it necessitates.

An Emergency System That Saves Lives

That should answer the question: how does 911 dispatch work?

Although the 911 system might be little more than an afterthought to most people until they have an emergency, it’s important to know that life-saving operators are on the other end of three simple numbers should you ever need help.

These emergency systems run on important technology that lets professionals speak to each other quickly and efficiently. Read more about these systems here!


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