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Public Safety Communications
Frequently Asked Questions

How do I contact the 9-1-1 center?

For emergencies such as fire, medical emergencies, crimes in progress or threats to life or property,  call 9-1-1.  For non-emergencies such as noise complaints, routine medical transports, and non-recent events that occurred hours ago or on a previous day, call the non-emergency number 703-792-6500.

What should I say when I call 9-1-1?

Immediately state the exact location and nature of your emergency. Let the call-taker ask the questions. The call-taker will want to verify your location, type of emergency, telephone number, and name. The call-taker will also ask questions regarding your situation, such as the name and description of any other persons involved and other pertinent information. Please be patient. Help is on the way, even while you are talking with the person taking your call.

What should I do if my child, or I dial 9-1-1 by mistake?

DO NOT HANG UP, stay on the line! Everyone makes mistakes, and there is no penalty for accidentally dialing 9-1-1. The call-taker that answers your call will want to verify your name, address, and phone number, and make sure there really is no emergency. If you do hang up, a call-taker will call you back to confirm that you are safe. If he or she gets no response on the attempt to call you back, they will dispatch a police officer.

What do I need to know about calling 9-1-1 on my cell phone?

  1. Location: Be prepared to give the call-taker your location including specific directions. Look for landmarks, large buildings, street signs, or paperwork nearby that may contain address information.

  2. Cost: There is no charge for calling 9-1-1 on a cell phone.

  3. Phone Number: Provide the 9-1-1 operator your phone number.

  4. Emergency Response: Once the basic information and the reason for the call is obtained, it is sent to Police or Fire/EMS dispatcher.  The call-taker will continue to ask questions, give emergency response information, and pass on situation updates until first responders arrive at the scene.

  5. Call Transfer: Your call may require transfer to another agency because cell calls go to a public safety answering point (PSAP) based on cell-site radio coverage. Cell-site coverage areas do not always match political boundaries, so most calls get routed to a PSAP that serves the majority of the area.

  6. Lost Connection: If you lose connection, always try to call back immediately without waiting for the call-taker to contact you. The call-taker may not have received your phone number and may need additional information.

  7. Operating a Motor Vehicle: It is usually best to pull over when calling 9-1-1, because there is less chance of losing the cell signal if in a stationary location. If you cannot safely pull over to speak to 9-1-1, then stay calm, pay attention to the roadway and surrounding vehicles, and follow the 9-1-1 operator’s instructions.

  8. Programming Cell Phone: DO NOT program 9-1-1, or use the auto 9-1-1 feature in your phone. The 9-1-1 center receives numerous accidental calls because of these features. In many cases, callers do not realize their phone has called 9-1-1.

What is enhanced 9-1-1 (E911)?

Enhanced 9-1-1 automatically reports both the number and location of the caller. This information is the Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Identification (ANI/ALI). The 9-1-1 center receives ANI/ALI information within 1.5 seconds from the time the call initiated from landline phones. The information will still display even if the number you are calling from is unlisted or unpublished.

Why do call-takers ask for a location if they know where the call is coming from?

One of the first questions asked when you call 9-1-1 is “Where is your emergency.” This is an important question for several reasons. Not all calls come from the location of the emergency. For example, a neighbor may call to report a prowler or fire down the street. Very infrequently, the ANI/ALI information is in error. When this happens, the operator reports the information in error and it has it corrected in the ANI/ALI database.

What do I need to know about Internet phone service?

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is different from landline/wire line service, and different still from cellular service. Internet phone service has not integrated into the 9-1-1 emergency calling network. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and emergency services agencies say providers must address this issue quickly. At present, VoIP providers cannot offer the kind of fail-safe connection to 9-1-1 available with regular landline/wire line service. Internet phone service providers typically ask you to register an address that it will use to give the 9-1-1 center, since VoIP numbers are not connected to a fixed address. Your actual location in a real emergency may or may not be the address you give at the time you sign up for service. VoIP providers do not have direct access to the 9-1-1 system, because they are not considered telephone companies. So even with location information, VoIP calls to 9-1-1 may not get properly routed to the appropriate 9-1-1 center.

Who are the people who answer 9-1-1 call and dispatch first responders?

A call-taker is the link between the public and first responders such as police officers, paramedics, and firefighters. To complete this link, a call-taker must be able to pass on a certain amount of information in order to coordinate responders. Due to a heavy load of requests for assistance and the nature of emergency calls, it is paramount that calls get handled in a timely and efficient manner. All callers are equally important, regardless of whether the request is for a responder or for information. To determine the type of request, a call-taker asks specific questions, which vary depending on the type of request. For example, when someone reports a vehicle accident, information needed includes an exact location and description of the vehicles involved. This information is valuable to first responders to help them locate victims quickly.

When reporting a suspicious person or vehicle, a good description is a vital tool in assisting first responders with locating the person or vehicle quickly. A call-taker is often responsible for performing multiple duties at the same time. When a call comes in, the caller's information gets typed into a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. With this system, the dispatcher receives requests for emergency response while the call-taker is still talking with the caller. This allows help to be sent as soon as the location and type of emergency are identified by the dispatcher, while allowing the call-taker to remain on the phone obtaining information that is more detailed or giving directions to the caller about what they should do until help arrives. Your call-taker is responsible for handling 9-1-1 and non-emergency telephone calls, relaying information by voice, computer, or any combination of these. On requests for information, a call-taker will do his or her best to direct callers to the appropriate person or agency. A call-taker may ask the caller to hold while answering an emergency call. The call-taker will try to suggest an alternate route if nothing else can be done.

A fully trained dispatcher/call-taker receives certification through the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) after completing pre-determined areas of training. The dispatcher/call-taker is certified to use the State and National criminal databases. Call-takers and dispatchers receive certification as Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD). An Emergency Medical Dispatcher is trained to give telephone instructions to callers to aid the victim and control the situation until first responders arrive. Dispatchers/Call-takers must re-certify on EMD every two years. At full staff, there are 68 dispatchers/call-takers and 13 supervisors. The number of staff on duty varies with the time of day. The average number of employees on duty is 12 when the center is at full staff.

Is the call-taker qualified to instruct callers on how to administer CPR/first aid to a patient?

All of our call-takers are CPR and Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) certified. As such, they can accurately query the caller, select an appropriate method of response, provide pertinent information to first responders, and give appropriate aid and direction for patients through the caller. Through careful application and reference to a written, medically approved, emergency medical dispatch protocol, sound decisions concerning Emergency Medical Service (EMS) responses are made in a safe, reproducible, and non-arbitrary manner. The call-taker is the first of the first responders to a medical emergency.


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