The 911 Emergency Response System works because of one thing and one thing only: the 911 dispatcher. They have an uncanny ability to bring order to chaos, calm the hysterical, and prescribe just the right number of resources for an emergency situation. Unfortunately, as an article in Radio Resource Magazine points out 911 call volume is increasing while the number of available operators have been decreasing, meaning citizens can expect to be on hold as long as EIGHT MINUTES before even talking to an operator. Why is this happening and what does this mean for you?…
The reason for that increase is probably in your pocket right now — a cell phone.
The first “modern” dispatch system for firefighters and police were a series of mechanical boxes strategically placed on street corners around the city they were covering. If there was a fire or the citizen needed police assistance they would run to the nearest box, pull the handle inside, and a signal would be sent to the closest station to dispatch units. Each box was uniquely numbered so the responding units knew exactly where the call came from. To this day major metropolitan areas are still divided into “boxes” so responders know which way to head from their station when they get a call, and while the boxes themselves may be long gone their numbers remain.
Ambulance 422 Echo, box 2208 for a BLS emergency…
With the increased adoption of the telephone citizens began calling their local fire station or police station directly rather than running and pulling the box handle. Up until the 1950s most telephone calls were placed by operators, so simply picking up the phone and stating what you needed was enough to get help rolling. Once operators became a thing of the past a standard emergency number was chosen and localities set up Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP), also known as 911 call centers, to handle calls and dispatch resources.
The original staffing requirements for these stations were decided when landline telephones were the norm. A family of four might have only one line for the entire household, meaning probably only one call per emergency. With the advent of the cell phone the math changed completely. Even a small event like a fender bender accident could bring in 20 to 30 calls from passing motorists, tying up resources (operators) that could be taking calls from new situations. Even worse, with the recent budget issues the country is facing call centers have been seeing staff reductions.
The “perfect storm” of increased call volume and fewer staffers means that if you call 911 on a busy night there’s a good chance you’re going to be on hold, which is the last thing you want to hear if there’s someone breaking into your house in the middle of the night.
Here are three tips to help you skip the line and make it through the night:
- Assume help is more than 15 minutes away. Even if you immediately talk to a 911 operator and they dispatch someone right away, it still may take time for them to get to you. Until you see those lights outside your window you’re on your own. For medical emergencies, apply direct pressure to any bleeding wounds and put the patient in a position of comfort. If there’s an immediate threat that requires police intervention either get out of the house or retreat to the furthest away point, preferably with a shotgun.
- Know the direct number for your local emergency services. Even though we have 911 dispatchers these days police and fire stations still have someone staffing their phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Figure out which are the closest police and fire stations to you and ask them for their direct phone numbers for the station. This can sometimes shave minutes off the wait time compared to calling 911, but if you can stand the wait 911 is still the best option for getting the help you need.
- Do it yourself. If you’ve got a medical emergency on your hands and the ability to drive to the hospital, GO. Recent studies showed no significant difference in the outcome of patients transported in the back of a police cruiser (without medical help) and those transported by ambulance. The faster you can get to definitive care (a hospital) the better the outcome will be. If the problem is the kind requiring police intervention, however, the legal ramifications of “doing it yourself” may be prohibitive. But if your life is in danger, do everything you can to protect yourself. Again, the best option is often running away.
Self sufficiency is always the best policy. If the only person you need to rely on in an emergency is yourself then you have a better chance at making it out alive and in one piece. Even 911 call centers can experience outages, so make sure you have at least two ways to contact help and make sure you have at your disposal the means to deal with anything for at least 15 minutes.
And if you have the opportunity, make sure to raise your voice in support of staffing at 911 call centers.