Calling 911

By on December 29, 2012

Calling 911, Calling 911 from a Cell Phone, First 911 Call

It’s the thing we are all taught to do, but do you do it?  Have you done it?  Last week I was headed to work and the first thing I saw when I got on the highway was a major accident going the other way.  It had just happened because traffic had just started to back up.  People were out of their vehicles and walking around, so it didn’t look like anyone was badly hurt, yet.  All the vehicles where still parked in lanes because the accident happened where construction going on and no shoulder.  With all those people around, surely someone had called 911.  I decided to call anyways since they where blocking lanes, someone else could quickly get hurt and because I saw 3 cars, 2 motorcycles, and 1 cement mixer truck were involved.

My 911 call was short and annoying.  I got an operator and told him there was an accident involving all these vehicles, it looked like everyone was okay and walking around their vehicles.  After I gave him the location (he asked me twice where it was) and told him there was no shoulder there because of the construction, he told me that wasn’t in his city and he would transfer me to the correct operator, where I started the story again.

Here in Texas, you get whatever operator for the tower that your phone is using at the time the call was placed.  It works when you are in a big city, not so much when you are near the borders of different cities.  Other states do their system differently.  California used to have all 911 calls from cell phones go to the State Highway Patrol (CHP) dispatch and then get put out to the different agencies.

After all that, the operator just said okay, we have someone on the way and hung up.  He didn’t even ask for my name, but that is normally how calls go.  If you haven’t called 911 before or are nervous about doing it, you shouldn’t be.  I am going to actually encourage you to call 911 the next time you see a traffic accident.  The operator will let you know if someone has already reported and it won’t take much time from you or the operator, but it will give you some good practice in case you ever have a real emergency and need to call.

Calling 911, First Time Calling 911, Calling 911 on a Cell phone

Here are a couple points to think about when calling.  The operator is looking for what happened where, what assets he or she needs to send out and in what priority the call needs to get.  You need to be ready with the what and where part of the equation.  The what comes really easy.  You saw what happened or you are involved in it.  People generally get tripped up on the where.  You need to be able to give good directions to someone that isn’t really from the area.  You can’t give directions like “the busy exit that goes across the highway from the Forum” or “the Chuy’s exit.”  Both are the same place and if you live and work in the northeast part of San Antonio you would know what I’m talking about, but everyone else has no idea.  Ideally, the operator would know the area well enough to understand the directions, but they can’t know every area they cover with that much detail.  You need to be able to give directions to someone that doesn’t know the area.  And these guys are part of law enforcement so they are very precise.  In my poor example a better way to say it would be “it’s on the Forum Parkway exit ramp, southbound side, just after the Chuy’s Restaurant.”  I generally try to give the exit number, too, if I see it or know it.  The more precise the info, the less guessing the operator has to do.

After that, the operator will start asking you simple precise questions about how many people are involved and what the scene looks like.  He is trying to decide how many people he should send and how fast they need to get there.  Answer the questions as fast and with the information you know, don’t guess, speculate, or exaggerate.

I will also try and give any info I see that might be useful, like if the accident is blocking the entire highway and no one is getting through, trying to help the operator dispatch people so they can get there and not get caught in traffic or an unsafe situation.

If you see an accident or someone that needs help, call 911, if for no other reason than practice.

Stay Safe,


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  1. Tammy
    January 3, 2013

    Leave a Reply

    I’ve had very mixed experiences calling 911. When I call my city police department, the dispatchers are uniformly efficient, polite, and helpful. Calling the CHP (to report suspected drunk drivers and traffic accidents) I’ve encountered polite, helpful and appreciative attitudes, but I’ve also encountered dispatchers who sounded like my call was an imposition.

    I’ve also had the experience, especially after seeing a major traffic accident where many people are calling, of dialing 911 on my cell phone and having the CHP dispatcher answer with “CHP dispatch, are you calling to report the accident on Highway 101 southbound in Arroyo Grande?” But I’d rather call and get this response (to which I’ll just say “yes, I am, thanks” and hang up) than not call and have the emergency response delayed.

    One other tip: Practice speaking slowly and clearly when you call 911. In an emergency, you’ll talk faster than you think you are, and you’ll be more wordy than you think you are. When I call 911, I try to talk at about half-speed, which slows me down enough, and I’ll usually just give a one sentence “where and what” statement, like “I’m calling to report a traffic accident on Highway 101 southbound about a mile north of the Willow Road off-ramp” and then SHUT UP and wait for the dispatcher to ask me what she wants to know.

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