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When Lives Are On The Line: Part I

[Guest blogger Kaden]

Call 9-1-1

Easy to remember and ingrained since childhood, call these three simple numbers and you can reach police,

fire, or medical assistance. And that’s about the extent of the average person’s knowledge of 9-1-1.

This series is meant to give you some insight inside my world, but mostly its just an excuse for me to talk a lot. Dana seems concerned about her stockpile of ready blog posts, and I have a ton of very, very important things to do. So it seemed only natural to stop doing those and get sidetracked.

[Speaking of sidetracked, a disclaimer: I am speaking merely as an individual, the views and opinions expressed below belong solely to me and not any public department or agency. I do not represent any government body. When consulting your local police or fire department, keep in mind that individual results may vary.]

In 1968, Robert Fitzgerald introduced North America to the 9-1-1 emergency telephone system. In the 43 years since then, the number 9-1-1 has become a nationally known resource for putting the ordinary citizen in touch with emergency services. In the 43 years since then, 9-1-1 has expanded and grown, and at the same time has retained an almost superhero-esque anonymity. And while I like to think of myself as a caped crusader rescuing innocent lives in the struggle against the dangers of everyday life, it’s not nearly that glorious. For one thing, we don’t get capes.

Man, I wish we got capes.

Before I dive too deep, let me give an overview of how 9-1-1 works, at least in my neck of the woods. Keep in mind that individual laws and regulations, as well as funding, means that emergency services may work very differently around the country and even in the same region. I work in Oregon and even some of our neighboring counties have fewer or greater services than we provide. Still, it follows a basic plan.

When you call 9-1-1 from any phone in the United States, either cell phone, landline, Voice-over IP (VoIP) phones, or payphone, your call is routed to the nearest PSAP, or Primary Service Answering Point. From there, your call may be handled by the PSAP’s agency, or may be transferred to a Secondary answering point. For example, my PSAP intakes 9-1-1 calls for most of the county, but we only dispatch for the fire department and 1 metro city police department. If you call 9-1-1 here and you are in a nearby city, you are then transferred to the appropriate police agency’s emergency line, and will be handled there. So we are a filter of sorts.

From there, your information is taken and emergency responders are dispatched to the location. Police for criminal matters, or the fire department for medical problems or, well, fires.

In smaller cities, the person who answers the phone may be the same person who is dispatching. That is, they operate the radio and the phones at the same time. I’ve even heard horror stories about call centers with such low staffing that if you have to use the bathroom, you have to take a portable radio with you.

In larger cities, you will usually be handled by a “calltaker”, whose sole responsibility is to answer phone lines (usually both emergency and non-emergency, such as asking questions for the police, directions to the nearest bar, or how long its going to take for the President to fix X, Y, and especially Z. Curse you Z). From there, your information will be given to a dispatcher who will send the little cars and big trucks with the flashing lights. In my agency, police and fire are even handled by separate dispatchers.

This doesn’t have much impact on most people, but if you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to call 9-1-1, it might help to keep in mind the general structure. The person who picks up the phone may not be the agency you are looking for. Just because you call 9-1-1 doesn’t mean you will get your local police or fire department, if the PSAP answers for multiple agencies or a large jurisdiction. Because they may have to transfer you to the right people, they may not have control over actually sending the responders. This is doubly true when there is a calltaker-dispatcher set-up. So keep in mind that while you’re shouting “where is my police officer?”, the person you are talking to may not have any control of their response.

Let me make myself clear, though. I am not telling you how to act or what to say while calling the police or fire department. It is not your job, as a citizen, to be familiar with “How To Call 9-1-1″. It is our job as dispatchers and calltakers to be able to extract the information that we need to get you help. I am not educating you as “9-1-1 Callers” because hopefully you will never have to use it. And if you do, you’ll probably be more concerned with the task at hand than telephonic etiquette. I’m merely letting you look behind the Wizard’s screen a bit and see what happens on the other side.

Further clarification of how 9-1-1 works. When you call 9-1-1, we do not (at least not our PSAP) have magical CIA satellites monitoring your every move. We do not necessarily know your exact pinpoint location just because you are calling from a cell phone. There are a few reasons this doesn’t work.

When calling from a land line, your physical address is only as good as the phone records. Which, to be fair, are usually quite good, but not imperfect. If you call from a house phone, our system is recognizing the address that the phone number is registered to, which is some cases is not always accurate. This is especially true when dealing with “routing” lines and large business network lines. If your business phones pass through a network router, the address of the business line may not be the same as where you are calling from.

VoIP phones also run a similar system of address registration. When you sign up for the service, you enter an address for the account, and when that system dials 9-1-1, that’s what we see. You may not be anywhere nearby, but that’s the registered address. The shadier uses of this includes using a deliberate fake address to mislead emergency responders, but that is a different topic.

Now, cell phones. Ah, cell phones. In this day and age of phones smarter than my desktop computer, people assume we know everything about them when they call. When you call from a cell phone, the call is bounced off a cell tower and then placed here. When we pick it up, we can hope for two things. “Phase 1″, which is the location of the cell phone tower. Yep, the nearest cell tower, which could have an effective area of square miles. If we’re lucky, depending on the reception where you are and the kind of phone you’re using, we can get “Phase 2″, which gives us GPS coordinates of the approximate location of your cell phone. Sometimes these are pinpoint, and sometimes with an effective range of several thousand meters. So yes, we will ask you for the location of the incident, even though you are calling from your cell phone, and even though your phone can tell you its exact location three states away while in an underground solid lead bunker.

Plus, technology is all wonky and sometimes gets fickle and doesn’t do what its supposed to.

Well, I think that about does it for an introduction. Tune in (or tune out) the next installment, where I’ll explain why it took over a year to get hired here.

For some of my creative musings, stop by The Elusive Muse.