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When You Have an Emergency, It's Time to Call 911- What Happens When You Initiate the Emergency Response System?

Updated on June 28, 2012

Fire Department Response

Fire Departments respond to emergencies like brush fires.
Fire Departments respond to emergencies like brush fires.

Police Response

Police officers are called out for crime-related incidents.
Police officers are called out for crime-related incidents.

Have You Ever Wondered What Happens When You Call 911?

Do you wonder what happens when you call 911? If you have never used the emergency response system, you either can guess what happens or have no clue. You are just happy that a police officer or the fire department shows up at your door.

Typically when you call 911 from a landline (not a cellphone), then it will direct you to a number of possible places. Depending if your local police and fire department have their own dispatch center will determine who answers the phone when you call. I will use a moderate suburban town in Southern California to demonstrate what happens.

  1. You have some type of emergency and call 9-1-1.
  2. The local police department dispatch center answers your call and asks, "9-1-1, what's your emergency?"
  3. The dispatcher will triage (sort the information given) the emergency and determine who is needed on this call.
  4. If it is determined that a police officer is needed, (i.e. crime-related incident, domestic violence, strange circumstances, etc.,..) then they will dispatch police officers to that call.
  5. If it is determined that the fire department is needed, (fire, medical emergency, traffic accident, hazardous situation, gas leak) then the call is transferred to the fire dispatch center. (note: for some cities, the dispatch center handles both fire and police) Often the information is taken and transferred to the fire dispatch center by the police dispatcher.
  6. The dispatcher will immediately dispatch the appropriate resources closest to the reported address for the incident as soon as he or she has enough information. This could be the fire or police department, or possibly both.
  7. The dispatcher will stay on the line to further guide the informant on the situation. (i.e. assist the person to safety, guide through CPR, assisting a choking vicim, etc.,..)
  8. The responding units will notify dispatch when they are on scene, and mitigate the situation.

The goal of the emergency notification and response process is to be as seamless as possible. Each part of the 9-1-1 dispatch chain has a specific goal or time frame that must be met. Generally, these time frames are guided by standards set by organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association. The fire department in the area of the same suburban neighborhood described earlier strives to respond to your home in less than 5 minutes. Here are some interesting tidbits in regards to the 9-1-1 response system in regards to California: (I reside and work in CA so I am partial to the area)

  • When you call 9-1-1 from your cell phone, your call is directed to the California Highway Patrol.
  • When you call from a landline (home phone), your information is immediately transferred to the dispatcher. Generally, the information on file is the person registered for the phone bill.
  • The fire department responds to medical calls with an ambulance and a fire truck. The amount of personnel is needed to mitigate the worst possible medical scenario such as a person who is not breathing. They require 5 people to effectively save a patient. A fire truck responds in the event they need to respond to a fire-related incident. The crew needs to be operational ready to respond to a variety of incidents.
  • Some cities have 9-1-1 emergency systems that can reverse call residents. This is necessary to disseminate important information during a disaster.
  • When a dispatch center is inundated or unable to handle a large volume of calls (i.e. natural disaster), local city or county emergency operational centers are initiated. At that point, calls are triaged and handled at these centers.
  • Keep in mind, during a power outage, certain phones that require electricity may not work during an emergency. It is a good idea to keep an older style phone around the house.
  • 9-1-1 system should never be abused. Someone out there might need it.

The 9-1-1 system has greatly improved over the last 30 years and continues to strive to deliver better service. With newer additions such as mobile date computers in police and fire vehicles, responses are continuing to be more efficient. Who knows what the future might bring for our emergency response system? Thank you for reading.

Fire Department Montage

Police Montage

911 Dispatch

Have you ever had to use 911?

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    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 4 years ago from Northern California

      This is a great overview of the typical way a 911 call is handled. To me it's important for people to know that all the questions the calltakers ask are not slowing down help, but are just to give police/fire/ambulance more information to help improve their response and help keep everyone safe.

    • Chen Suen profile image

      Chen Suen 5 years ago from Arcadia, California

      Thank you eHealer for the comment. Yes, people do get irate. I suppose it's the worst day of their lives so stress can play a factor. Thanks again.

    • eHealer profile image

      Deborah 5 years ago from Las Vegas

      Excellent hub. People are often upset because they think the dispatcher (911 operator) isn't sending help when they stay on the phone. It's good to know they send for help right away. Thanks for the great info.

    • Chen Suen profile image

      Chen Suen 5 years ago from Arcadia, California

      Thank you mattdigiulio. I'm glad my hub helped in some way.

    • mattdigiulio profile image

      mattdigiulio 5 years ago

      Hey there. Very cool hub. I always wanted to know the protocol here.

    • Chen Suen profile image

      Chen Suen 5 years ago from Arcadia, California

      Thank you for your response. It seems that different areas have similar concepts. I know that the delivery may be different. Here we are a dual service emergency response. What I mean is that the fire department functions as the emergency medical provider and fire service.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Nice and informative hub. I live in the Pacific Northwest and in my area there is a central dispatch. When you tell them what your emergency is they transfer you to the appropriate emergency help.