In the US it’s common knowledge that you can call 911 to summon help in an emergency. In this series I want to help you understand the 911 system in a little better detail, in the hopes that the knowledge may help you better handle emergencies with confidence in the future.
Let’s first say that 911 should be dialed for emergencies only. It is not an appropriate way to do anything else. This generally means that someone believes they are in immediate danger. The 911 telephone number is currently the universal way to report any emergency in the US, but it wasn’t always this way (see History of 911). Today we all know that in any emergency we can pick up the phone and have access to law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS), and the fire department via 911, but where does the call actually go?
Let’s introduce some terminology, to better-explain where your 911 call goes. With the implementation of the 911 system came the advent of the public safety answering point or PSAP, which just means an emergency call center. These PSAPs are staffed by personnel specially trained to handle emergency calls and get the appropriate information from a caller to send the appropriate assistance. A primary PSAP is a call center where a 911 call initially rings when you dial. A secondary PSAP is an emergency call center which a primary PSAP can transfer calls to. The primary PSAP is generally the dispatch center of the local police department if you call from a landline phone, or of the state police if you call from a cell phone.
If the primary PSAP that receives your 911 call handles the type of help you need in the appropriate jurisdiction then they will handle the entire call, asking you all the appropriate questions and sending out the right type of help. If you need other help though the primary PSAP can transfer your call to the right place like a different law enforcement agency, fire department or ambulance service. In some places the ambulance service, fire department and law enforcement agency are all managed out of one centralized call center. If this is the case wherever your local 911 call goes then that call center will continue to manage your call, though they may connect you to another call-taker who has specialized training handling your type of emergency over the phone.
You don't speak directly to the actual responders (paramedics, police officers, firefighters etc.) coming to help you, but rather to professionals who are trained to get the right information and send you the right help. They then send the most appropriate help to you based on what you tell them is wrong, and relay the information to the actual responders.
If the service that you need is not managed from the primary PSAP where your 911 call goes, they will transfer you to the appropriate call center (a secondary PSAP) which will then field the call. A 911 call can only be transferred once, from the primary PSAP to a secondary PSAP. You may hear clicks, silence or other sounds during your 911 call, but it doesn’t mean they hung up on you. Stay on the line until told to hang up. A PSAP can also get other agencies on the line in a conference call to utilize special help like interpreters and poison control centers.
Now you know a little bit about where your 911 call goes. It doesn’t change anything about what you’re supposed to do in an emergency, which is always to call 911. What I hope you will take away from this article though is that these call centers are highly trained and specialized, and so staying on the phone, answering their questions, and following their instructions are the best things you can do to help yourself as well as the responders coming to help you.
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