This article, written by a dispatcher who works for a large police agency in Arizona, was originally published on the Defensive Carry discussion board, and is reprinted here with the dispatcher’s permission.
You always hear from other people (and sometimes your firearms instructor) to try to be a good witness rather than confront a situation head on, if possible. One thing that they forget to tell you is how exactly you can be a “good witness.” Well, I’m here to give you some tips on what to do when you dial those three important numbers: 9-1-1. Instead of tailoring this specifically for shooting-related incidents, I’m writing this for just about any kind of emergency because this is the most-important and first step to getting the help you need quickly.
Remember Where You Are
THE MOST IMPORTANT INFORMATION YOU CAN GIVE A DISPATCHER IS YOUR LOCATION, AS ACCURATELY AS POSSIBLE. I have a saying at work, “I can send the world to you, I just need to know where to send it.” We can send anything from animal control to sending in the military troops, but it will do no one any good if we can’t find you.
It’s commonly understood that when you call 9-1-1 that the dispatcher already knows the location of where you are calling and your phone number. That’s not necessarily true. It also depends on your local phone company and even how you’re dialing 9-1-1. If you are calling from a residential phone, there’s a high chance that the address shown on our screens are correct and the same with the phone number if you’ve lived there for a long time (e.g. +/- 5 years). If you’re calling from a cell phone, you might as well assume that we have no idea where you are let alone what your phone number is. Very few places in the country have the ability to not only know your phone number but to actually figure out your location, even while moving in a vehicle (mine is one of those few).
So, always be sure to give your location. If you are driving on a highway, keep track of whether you’re going north/south/east/west-bound, the last milepost marker and approximately how far away from it you are. On a freeway, remember the last exit number or street that you passed. In a city, remember the address of where the emergency is (or the cross streets and which direction you are; e.g. northwest/northeast/southwest/southeast/etc.).
Remember: We need to know where the emergency is/has happened rather than where you live or where you retreated to.
Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)
Dispatchers can only send help as fast as we can determine what exactly is going on. If there is a home invasion/robbery, say so. Don’t say that you were sleeping and some guy breaks down your door, etc., etc. Just say in plain English what it is.
Some examples: Domestic violence (physical/verbal/people are separated now), people fighting, bank robbery, assault in progress, armed robbery, carjacking, shooting (someone was actually shot), prowler, car accident, hit and run, fire, suicide, rape, man down, shots fired (nobody actually shot).
The faster you can tell us exactly what happened (short and sweet), the faster that we can send help.
Another important factor is when it happened. There is a large difference between an assault that happened 2 weeks ago, an assault that happened an hour ago, 5 minutes ago, and is happening right now. Once you give us the minimum information (location, what happened, how long ago) we can dispatch help immediately while we put you on standby for about 30 seconds so we can get things going.
Safety Is the MOST Important Thing
Your safety, the safety of those involved and the safety of those responding to a call are of the utmost importance to us. If there is a very dangerous incident at the location that you are calling from… LEAVE!!! Don’t wait for a dispatcher or police officer tells you to do so. Use common sense! It does us and you no good to call us in the middle of a shooting rampage or house fire while you’re still there, you could get hurt or killed!
Make sure that your environment is safe for you to be calling from and let us know right away if there is something that can hurt us/you or would increase the cautious approach of those responding to the call.
Questions that we always ask include:
- Is anybody hurt and how hurt are they (e.g. unconscious, breathing, walking around, etc.)?
- Are there any dogs?
- Has anyone been drinking or seem like they have been?
- Has anyone been doing any drugs or seem like they have been?
- Are there any children involved or around now or when it happened?
- Are there any weapons involved (you or the bad guys)?
There are literally loads of other questions we will ask depending on what you’re calling about. If you volunteer this information without us asking it makes our job easier and gets the information to those responding quicker.
People and Vehicle Descriptions
If there are people involved, tell the dispatcher who the players are. It is just as important for us to know who the innocent people are as well as the BGs if there is any reason why a LEO would approach them cautiously.
Descriptions of people should include: ethnicity (What they look like, not their family tree; e.g. white/black/Hispanic/native American/Asian/etc.), gender, if they have a hat/what kind/color, hair color and length (approximate), shirt type and major color(s), pants/shorts/dress/etc. (including major color(s)), if they are wearing a jacket (type and major color(s)), shoes (if possible), and any unique characteristics (huge mustache, bushy beard, extremely short skirt, large spiked hair, numerous piercings on the face, tattoos, etc). We also need to know if they are still there or left and if they left which direction they were last seen going.
When a vehicle is involved, we don’t necessarily need to know what manufacturer made the car or the specific model. Unless you are absolutely 100% sure as to what it is and can quote the engineering schematics, we prefer general descriptions of the vehicle.
We need to know the following: color (!), type of vehicle (station wagon, sedan, coupe, pickup truck — with or without camper shell, SUV, motor home, farm equipment, semi-truck, etc.), year of the vehicle (older, newer, or approximate decade will do just fine), any unique characteristics (e.g. chrome wheels/rims, bumper/window stickers, dents, broken/cracked glass, etc), how many people are in the vehicle (as well as their descriptions, if possible), license plate and state issued (if you can get it, partial plates are still helpful), and the direction the vehicle was last seen going in.
General Information and Conclusion
Try to volunteer as much information as you can without being questioned. As I said already, the faster we get information the faster we can get it out to those responding and those in the area. If we need more information, we will ask for it.
If you are on a cell phone you can barely hear the dispatcher, you/they are breaking up heavily, or there are other problems with the connection, keep repeating your location until the dispatcher confirms your location. The default response to any situation where we can’t figure out what’s going on is to send people now for some kind of unknown problem and try to recontact you.
When giving numbers, don’t give 3742 as “thirty-seven forty-two,” give it as “three-seven-four-two”, or both one right after the other. When giving letters such as in a license plate, try to give it phonetically. If you don’t know any military or LE phonetic alphabet, give example words (e.g. “B as in boy”). This will avoid confusion and get your information correctly as you give it rather than trying to figure out what you said. If there is something else that we need to know, we will ask… Believe me, it’s our job to get information quickly and we know how to do it well.
Dispatchers are commonly considered the “first person on the scene” so we need to know as much as we can, as quickly as we can so that help (and the right help) can get to you and get what needs to be done safely for everyone involved.