How to Call 911: Advice from a 911 Dispatcher

The 911 call protocol is a set of guidelines for calling emergency services in the United States. Asking questions that could help save someone’s life, such as where to find an address or what type of animal they are dealing with, can be helpful while waiting on the dispatcher.

The “sample 911 call script” is a step-by-step guide on how to make a 911 call. The article also includes advice from a 911 dispatcher.

Vintage man attending a telephone call and making surprised look on face.

James Dillman, a 911 dispatcher, contributed this guest article.

Most of us will need to contact the police, fire department, or ambulance at some time in our lives. Because it is fast and simple, our initial instinct is to pick up the phone and dial 911. However, not every demand for emergency assistance requires dialing 911. Here’s a rundown on when and how to dial 911, as well as what to anticipate when you do. Keep in mind that these are only suggestions; if you’re ever in question about how to respond to a particular scenario, you should always err on the side of caution.

Because that is where my expertise resides, this post will focus on 911 calls that necessitate a police response. Depending on where you reside, the dispatcher who answers your 911 call will most likely take care of any police requests. If you need the assistance of the fire department or EMS (Emergency Medical Services), the person who answers the phone may be able to assist you, or you may be forwarded to a fire and EMS dispatcher. For getting the location of your emergency, police, fire, and EMS dispatchers will generally follow the same protocols. The dispatcher will ask specific questions about the incident after the location has been confirmed. Fire and EMS dispatchers are highly educated to provide medical emergency instructions, and these directions should be obeyed without question. They might save not just your life, but someone else’s as well.

When Is It Appropriate to Call 911?

When someone’s life, safety, health, or property is in urgent danger, it’s a good idea to contact 911. Most crimes, strange individuals or vehicles, disturbances (other than normal noise disturbances), fights, people with weapons, suicidal people, or any occurrence involving someone experiencing a serious mental or emotional episode fall under this category. This also implies that if you need the assistance of the fire department or an ambulance, you should phone 911 immediately. Calling the cops is a different story, since the police department receives a wide range of demands. Some situations need quick action, while others do not. Knowing when to call 911 and when not to can help keep the emergency lines available for persons in genuine danger.

Non-emergency numbers for police, fire, and EMS are often placed at the beginning of the phone book (or on your local city government website). These should be kept in your smartphone and placed near all telephones in your house or workplace. For the following, you should contact the non-emergency number:

1. Crimes with a time delay of more than fifteen minutes, assuming no injuries have occurred and the suspects are not still on the scene, within view, or at a known location nearby. Thefts, stolen autos, forgeries, fraud, vandalism, harassment, trespassing, threats, and attacks that do not need medical treatment fall under this category. If the premises have been examined and the suspects are not present, burglaries fall into this category. A burglary in progress should be deemed an open or insecure door or window that suggests a break-in has happened. Call 911 and wait outside in a safe area until police come and secure the property. When a crime or suspected crime has been committed, always err on the side of caution.


2. Traffic collisions that simply result in property damage and do not pose a severe traffic hazard.

3. Inquiries about laws, legislation, or regulations. Do not contact the police for legal guidance; a lawyer should be consulted. Due to liability concerns, police officers are not permitted to provide legal advice. Do not seek medical advice from EMS. They can’t and won’t provide it to you under any circumstances. They can only send you an ambulance and offer you advice for your urgent medical needs.

4. Inquiries on arrests or detainees.

5. Disturbances in the form of extremely loud music or parties.

6. Vehicles that have been towed or impounded inquiries.

7. Directions to a given location or the location of a specific spot.

8. No drugs or vice behavior (prostitution, gambling, etc.) is suspected.

9. Information on the warrant.

10. Missing individuals, unless the person is a minor, has a mental or physical handicap, or there are unusual or suspicious circumstances.

11. Vehicles that are disabled, debris on the highway, and traffic signs and signals that are broken or malfunctioning but do not pose a major traffic danger.

Animal complaints that do not entail an injury are number twelve.

13. Vehicle keys must be kept secured unless a kid or animal is present. (For liability considerations, several police agencies have made it a policy not to unlock vacant automobiles.)

14. Welfare checks, unless exceptional circumstances exist.

15. Information on traffic or parking tickets, as well as court dates.

16. Power outages, water main breaks, roadway potholes, and so forth. (When feasible, these calls should be sent to the proper municipal agency rather than the police.)

17. Requests for information on road and weather conditions.

Complaints against the police.

All of the above are calls that frequently flood 911 call centers in the dozens, if not hundreds, in bigger jurisdictions, and are a severe hindrance to true emergencies being handled quickly. Pocket dials from cellphones, as well as calls from children who are playing with the phone or making prank calls, are a significant issue. Do your bit to ensure that the 911 lines remain open for individuals who really want assistance.

Many agencies have civilian staff who accept reports over the phone for minor offenses. This is done in order to maintain as many police officers accessible as possible to react to crises and to be proactive in the communities. If the police request that you submit your report in this way, try to satisfy them. Expect the police to dispatch a detective and the crime lab to look into the stereo that was taken from your car. If the officer responding to your call needs to gather evidence, he will take the necessary steps. It’s possible that you’ll have to wait an hour or more for the police to react to a non-in progress offense. Unless the situation becomes dangerous or you believe the police have forgotten about you, you should not phone the police to inquire when they will arrive. Emergency calls will always be prioritized by the police. You wouldn’t want the cops to disregard a life-threatening scenario at your house or company in order to react quickly to a loud music complaint that came in before your call.

When You Call 911, Here’s What to Expect

You know when to call 911 now. When you need to do so, here’s what you should anticipate. First and foremost, if you contact 911 and are told to wait, you should do it as calmly as possible. 911 phone systems are programmed to respond to calls in the order in which they are received. You are merely placing yourself farther behind in line if you hang up and call back. Many 911 centers are understaffed, and even fully staffed call centers may rapidly become overburdened on popular holidays like New Year’s Eve, Halloween, or July 4th. We will return your call as soon as possible. Because 911 calls are answered first, wait times on the non-emergency line might be significantly longer. Try calling again later if your call can wait.


911 dispatchers have been trained to gather detailed information about your situation. The six W’s are often referred to as “where, what, when, who, weapons, and welfare.”

1. Where: The dispatcher will usually inquire about the specific location of your emergency. If the incident occurs at your house or place of work, be ready to provide the specific address. It’s incredible how many individuals don’t know their own or their workplace’s address. If you call from a landline, the dispatcher’s computer screen will usually provide the correct address. Regardless, the dispatcher will confirm the location from which you are calling. Humans input information into 911 systems, and errors do happen. There are faults in the systems from time to time. The dispatcher is aware of this and will demand that you confirm your location vocally. Although technology is fast progressing, most 911 centers are unable to establish your specific location if you call from a mobile.

Remember that apartments, like single-family homes, have a building number and street address. There are various buildings and streets in many apartment complexes. If you identify your address as Rolling Hills Apartments #139, for example, the cops are unlikely to know where you are. They’ll need your full address, including any apartment letters or numbers if you have them. Many apartment complexes have protected doorways that either need the police to be buzzed in or have a keypad with a code. Prepare to provide any extra information required by the dispatcher to get to your door. If you reside in a gated community with a keypad code, the same rule applies.

If the emergency occurs in a place for which you do not know the address, you must be prepared to give the dispatcher with the specific location. The hundred-block (900-block of East 10th Street) or the adjacent junction is usually the case (16th Street and Riverside). Prepare to provide further details, such as the name of the company or, if it’s a home, which side of the street it’s on, the color of the house, the description of cars in front or in the driveway, and so on. You may also provide the dispatcher the address of the place you’re calling from and say it’s three homes north, immediately across the street, or behind the address. If you don’t know the address, be as descriptive as possible. If you’re at a house where you don’t know the address, the dispatcher can urge you to look for a piece of mail with the address written on it.

If you’re phoning from a landline, you may simply dial 911 and put the phone down in an emergency. In certain cases, it may not be possible or safe for you to stay on the phone. The cops will be sent by the dispatcher. If you call from a cellphone, don’t assume the dispatcher knows where you are. When you can safely do so and one is available, it’s always best to call on a landline.


2. What: Describe your situation to the dispatcher in detail. Typically, just a short description is required. The dispatcher does not need to be aware of the events that led to the current situation. Just tell him what’s going on right now.

3. When: Let the dispatcher know when the event happened or whether it is still happening. In many areas, the dispatcher will ask you to hold the line while he sends assistance based on the scant information you have supplied. Wait patiently until the dispatcher returns to the phone to get further information. Keep in mind that the dispatcher is likely talking to you on the phone while also talking to the cops on the radio.

4. Who: If it’s pertinent, the dispatcher will ask you for suspect information. This will include the number of suspects, a description of their attire, whether they are walking or driving, and a description of any vehicles involved. The dispatcher will also inquire about the suspects’ and cars’ travel directions if they have fled the site. Tell the dispatcher what street, business, or important landmark in the region they departed toward if you don’t know which way they went.

When giving suspect descriptions, the dispatcher will initially inquire as to the color of the suspect’s cap, coat, shirt, jeans, shorts, skirt, or outfit. Physical descriptions are not required unless there is anything unique about the suspect, such as being very tall or short, being extremely overweight, or having some other uncommon attribute, such as walking with a limp or having an amputated arm. The best approach for an officer arriving on site to identify a probable suspect is via clothing descriptions. Color, year (if available), manufacturer, body (coupe or sedan, van, SUV), and license plate should all be included in vehicle descriptions (if available). Other distinctive features should be noticed, such as front-end damage or a door that is a different color than the rest of the car.

5. Weapons: The dispatcher will inquire whether anybody has any weapons at this time or at any other point throughout the situation. This applies not just to criminal suspects, but also to anybody else engaged in the event who may be in possession of a weapon. Describe the weapon and the person who wields it, as well as the attire they are wearing. Tell the dispatcher whether it’s a handgun (pistol or revolver) or a long gun if someone has a gun (rifle or shotgun).

It is critical that you be aware of the laws governing the ownership and usage of weapons in your area. This is all your fault. Be aware that police officers arriving on the scene will not be able to distinguish between suspects and innocent individuals, and they will be expected to do whatever it takes to defend themselves. A police officer or an innocent bystander might be injured or killed as a consequence of this. If you or someone else on the scene possesses a firearm, the dispatcher will most likely ask you to secure it and ask anybody else who has a weapon to do the same before the cops come, if it will not jeopardize anyone’s safety. All parties involved must strictly follow the dispatcher’s directions.


6. Welfare: The dispatcher will inquire as to whether or not anybody need an ambulance. Be aware that you may be moved to a fire and EMS dispatcher, in which case you should remain on the line and provide the relevant information.

Last Thoughts

When dialing 911, there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, be as cool as possible while listening carefully to the dispatcher’s queries. Don’t ramble and keep your replies as short as possible. Make an effort not to repeat yourself. Do not inquire as to why the dispatcher is interrogating you. He’ll just ask for the information he needs to promptly process your call and get you aid. When you make your call, you will most likely be under some stress. Make an effort to be courteous to the dispatcher. Don’t just hang up after saying, “Just send the cops!” Telling the dispatcher to hurry is a bad idea. He’s running as quickly as he can, which won’t bring you assistance any faster. The dispatcher is worried for the cops responding to your emergency’s safety, and he will be insistent about acquiring the information he need. If the dispatcher seems pushy, careless, or uncaring, don’t take it personally. He isn’t, and he is eager to assist you. While you’re on the phone with the cops, don’t attempt to carry on a discussion with anybody else in the room. Give the requested information as precisely as promptly as possible, and you will get the quickest answer possible.

When contacting 911, keep your own safety in mind. Do everything it takes to protect yourself and anybody else on the premises safe. It’s possible that you’ll have to flee the area or isolate yourself in a room. The information the dispatcher requests is critical, but it does not take precedence over your safety. It’s usually a good idea to talk to your family about possible situations ahead of time. Create a strategy for keeping everyone as safe as feasible. If you live in a major city, the police department or 911 center will almost certainly have a liaison ready to talk to local organizations, religious groups, or corporate gatherings regarding home and workplace safety. Invite them to one of your social gatherings.

Again, these are just suggestions; there are no hard and fast laws on when to call 911. If you’re in a scenario that need the assistance of a public safety agency, don’t spend time discussing whether it’s an emergency or not. Make a 911 call if you have even the smallest uncertainty. Simply be aware that in many cases, contacting the non-emergency number will result in an appropriate response, allowing someone in urgent need of help to get a faster response.

Again, these are just suggestions; there are no hard and fast laws on when to call 911. If you’re in a scenario that need the assistance of a public safety agency, don’t spend time discussing whether it’s an emergency or not. Make a 911 call if you have even the smallest uncertainty. Simply be aware that in many cases, contacting the non-emergency number will result in an appropriate response, allowing someone in urgent need of help to get a faster response.

James Dillman works at the Indianapolis 911 center as a dispatcher. The author’s views and suggestions in this post are solely his own and do not necessarily represent his employer’s views, policies, or processes. If you have any doubts about the suggested methods for reporting crises in your area, contact your local authorities.









The “list 5 important things to know about calling 911:” is a blog post from a 911 dispatcher. The blog post gives advice on how to call 911 in an emergency situation.

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