The Most Important Thing


It’s hard to argue with the notion that two most important pieces of information of a call are the call location and the caller’s callback number. Out of those two things, the trickier variable is the location. The type of phone line used to call in affects the kind of information available to the call-taker. If the call for service is inside a building or out on the street – those details make a big difference. Sometimes the caller is third-party, maybe not even on scene- they may not know the address. Child callers may or may not know their address, or they may not know how to describe where they are.

It is critical that the caller know where the response needs to go – but in a moment of crisis, sometimes that’s hard to communicate. For example, if a caller is at a friend’s house, they may not know the address. If they are in an intersection, maybe involved in an accident, they may be too disoriented to explain where they are located. Many people function on some level of ‘autopilot’ while they are driving around – often unaware of the name of the street they are on or the cardinal direction they are traveling.

This is where the knowledge and skill of the dispatcher comes in – verifying the location of the call for service. If you are interested in becoming an emergency call-taker or dispatcher, I would highly recommend that you work on becoming extremely familiar with the area the agency services.

(Hey, prospective applicants!)
You’ll need to know:

  • The jurisdictional boundaries of the agency
  • General jurisdiction of surrounding agencies
  • Major landmarks in the area – shopping centers, hospitals, city facilities
  • Names and locations of apartment complexes and neighborhoods/subdivisions
  • Major roadways in the area (including outside of your jurisdiction)
  • The cardinal orientation of all major roadways (N/S, E/W, SW/NE, etc)


I’ll offer an example of why it is so important to know your area. A frantic person calls in on 911 and says, “I need help here, quickly!” They are calling on a cell phone. We can see the general area where they are located (they are calling on a cell phone), but do not have enough information to plot a call location. They advise the call-taker that they are on the highway, and there has been an accident with injuries. They keep repeating that they are on the highway. The area that their cell phone is plotting near has two major highways with four levels of roadways/flyovers. If the call-taker incorrectly plots the address of the call, the police, fire, and EMS response could be delayed several minutes as they drive to the wrong location — only to have to exit, backtrack, and respond to where they can see the accident has occurred. What can the call-taker do?

Ask for landmarks. What do you see around you? Any businesses or signs? If the call-taker knows the area, they can start to picture in their mind what the caller is describing. What direction was the caller traveling (north, south, east, west)? If they don’t know, the call-taker can ask where they were traveling from (from X city? from Y road?), and where they were traveling towards. If they are on the highway, are they on the actual highway (often called the “proper” or the main part of the highway), or are the on the service (or “frontage”) road? These details can affect the response time by several minutes.

Callers — know your location! If you don’t, stay on the phone with the call-taker and keep answering their questions. The call-taker talking to you doesn’t slow down the dispatching of first responders, but they need priority information to relay to those who are driving to help you. Its not like in the movies – we don’t always know where you are. We will need you to answer our questions so that we can get you the right help as quickly as possible.

A final PSA – please teach your children their home address, and consider writing it down in multiple places in your home. In a crisis, their frightened minds may have trouble remembering it – but they can read it to the call-taker if its taped to the fridge. Consider teaching your children (even the very young ones!) the names of the roads that you travel to and from school, the name of the parks you visit, and which neighbors to go to in case of an emergency. The call-taker who answers a child’s call for help will do everything in their power to figure out where they are, but please consider preparing your child with this information. Your local dispatcher will thank you!

P.S. Last year, John Kelly and Brendan Keefe of USA Today released an investigative piece about the lack of location data (consistently) available to 911 dispatch centers throughout the country. Chapter 4 of their article provides a more technical explainations of cell phone data flow to public safety answering points (PSAPs).

911’s deadly flaw: Lack of location data


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