Treat All Calls as Emergencies
“911. Where’s your emergency?”
It is a phrase that we as 911 telecommunicators use on a daily basis. We are trained to get the address of the emergency, phone number of the complainant, listen to background noises, ask all the pertinent questions related to a call, and send the appropriate responding units. We also ask more detailed questions to update information for the units. But what do we do if we suspect the call is a prank?
Sometimes we get a prank call and don’t even realize it until it’s over. Early in my career, I received a 911 call from a man looking for help for his brother.
My former agency was relatively small and oftentimes only one dispatcher was on-duty during a shift. I was by myself that night. I spoke with this caller several times over the course of the evening. At first, he just wanted general information on how to help his drug-addicted brother. But several calls later, he told me that he was with his brother who had overdosed and needed help.
I sent the cavalry, which included police officers, EMS, firefighters and anyone and everyone who was willing to go. As units responded, I walked the caller through CPR and heard him count as he did chest compressions on his brother. As I continued to instruct him, the units started arriving on the scene, and there was no mobile home where he said it should be.
For a few seconds, I tried to think of everything that I could do to help the responders find this man and help save his brother’s life. I asked him about the color of the mobile home, and I gave the information to the responders.
Then I asked him to turn the porch light on and off. He told me that bulb had burned out. I asked for a description of a vehicle in the driveway; he told me there was none. I listened as he cried and begged me to find him and save his brother.
Then the caller simply said, he is dead and that he was leaving him. He told me not to worry about it and that he had left the mobile home.
My heart sank. Then reality hit, and with a stern voice, I told the caller, “Go help your brother, go back to him, you can’t leave him alone, you have to help him.”
He simply said that he was dead and hung up on me. I feverishly tried to call him back, but he would not answer. It just went to voicemail. I updated the responders, all the while feeling like a failure. I had let this young man down, and I had let his brother down.
I felt sick to my stomach, almost vomiting in the trash can. An hour later, it was over. We found the caller. The cell phone he used to make the calls was his personal phone, and he had recorded his name on the voicemail feature. There was no brother. The whole thing was a lie – a prank. He made up some excuse as to why he did what he did, but it didn’t matter. I did my job that night. I handled the call.
So what happens when dispatchers dismiss calls they feel are pranks? It can result in tragedy.
According to an NBC news article, a 5-year-old Robert Turner of Michigan, called 911 to report that his mother had collapsed.
The 911 operator admonished him, saying, “You shouldn’t be playing on the phone.”
She went on to say, “Now put her on the phone before I send the police out there to knock on the door and you’re gonna be in trouble.”
Robert and his mother did not get the help they needed that day. Sadly, Robert’s mother died after her son called for help.
According to Detroit Police spokesman James Tate, “It was at least an hour before authorities arrived.”
What might have happened if this call had been handled like any other emergency call? Would Robert’s mother still be alive? We will never know. But as my former boss always said, “When in doubt, tone them out.”
When tasked with writing this article, the idea was to write about ways we, as 911 telecommunicators, handle prank calls. I thought, “Sure, I am pretty creative. I can whip this article up in no time.” An hour later, panic set in.
How many different ways can we handle prank calls as 911 telecommunicators?
I mean, sure I have had my fair share of prank calls, including the one I mentioned earlier, but I gathered the information that I could, and I sent units. There has got to be more creative ways than just sending units and handling the call.
I became obsessed with trying to think of new and creative ways to deal with a prank call. I searched high and low on the Internet, only finding funny prank 911 call videos.
I brainstormed on my long commute daily, to no avail. It wasn’t until I spoke with a colleague that I realized I was making this a lot harder than it had to be.
He simply said, “We treat all calls, even the ones we think are pranks, as emergencies.”
It was as if the heavens had opened and the trumpets sounded. It was that simple. We handle our calls.
Every call that comes into the dispatch center we must treat as an emergency, because, as most of you know, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. In fact, that one call that can’t possibly be real may very well be getting handled by your officers or responders at this very moment.