How does 9-1-1 work?

Photo showing someone typing on a keyboard.

Dial 9-1-1 for situations involving an immediate threat of serious injury to life or property. All other calls should be made to the Public Safety Non-Emergency number.

There are many reasons to call 9-1-1, but more reasons to call the Public Safety Non-Emergency number.  The following are examples of appropriate 9-1-1 calls:

  • You are involved in, or witness to a fight/argument that is happening now.
  • You hear gunshots being fired in the area now.
  • Someone is breaking into your home now.
  • You are involved in, or witness to an injury accident now.
  • Your house, apartment, or vehicle is on fire now.
  • Your family member is experiencing chest pains now.
  • You are having difficulty breathing now.

All of the above calls are appropriate for 9-1-1 because there is an immediate threat to life or property AND the situation is happening now.  Let's consider this situation... someone wakes up and discovers their vehicle is gone.  This situation occurred sometime overnight.  The appropriate number to call and report this is the Non-Emergency number.  Now, imagine If this caller had dialed 9-1-1 and tied up one of our Calltakers at the same time you were calling because your loved one was choking and unable to breath.  For this reason, our 9-1-1 center refers callers to the Non-Emergency number when appropriate.  Calltakers empathize with your situation, but they must prioritize the call load to help those with life threatening situations first.  At the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) in Multnomah County, the same Calltakers answer both 9-1-1 and Non-Emergency calls.  The difference is the line they come in on.  Remember, we want to prioritize calls so we are helping those with life threatening situations first.  If you are unsure whether your call is an emergency or not, dial 9-1-1 and the Calltaker will determine if you need emergency help. If not, they will refer you to the Non-Emergency number.

When people call 9-1-1, they just want help to get there now.  Talking with a 9-1-1 Calltaker does NOT delay help from getting to you.  BOEC has dedicated Calltakers and Dispatchers.  While you are talking with the Calltaker, they are relaying information via computer to the Dispatcher who is talking with the responding personnel (police, fire, ambulance) so staying on the line with the Calltaker does not delay help from getting to you quickly.  In fact, staying on the line and answering the Calltakers questions provides the responding personnel with critical information to better help you.  For police calls, gathering information about a situation and/or suspect may be necessary so officers know what type of situation they are walking into or how to handle the situation once they arrive.  The information also allows them to be on the lookout as they come into the area for any suspects, vehicles, etc.  For fire and medical incidents, the information may help the responding personnel know which type of equipment is needed to respond or to bring inside once they arrive.  Answering questions saves precious time when seconds count.  

BOEC trains its Calltakers to ask the 7 W's: Where, What, When, Who, Why, Weapons, Warnings.   Some of the W's may be asked in a few different ways.  For example, we will ask Where help is needed, but we may also ask Where is the victim and/or Where are you.  Another example, we may ask Who is the victim, Who is the suspect, Who are you in relation to the situation that is occurring.  A typical 9-1-1 call may go something like this:

What is the emergency?

Where is help (police, fire, or ambulance) needed?

When did this happen?

Who is the suspect?

Were any Weapons involved?

Do you know Why this happened?

Warnings - The Calltaker and Dispatcher will check the computer system for any previous calls at this location.

The above questions may seem needless, but they are incredibly important to the responders.  Callers should keep their answer short and concise.  People like to tell a story about what happened.  Unfortunately, we do not have time to listen to the stories.  We must interrupt and keep the caller focused on answering our questions.  Callers can be emotional, angry, or hysterical.  These calls can be difficult for a Calltaker to deal with.  BOEC Calltakers are professionally trained to deal with such situations and to provide the necessary assistance to our callers. 

The other half of 9-1-1 is the dispatch side.  BOEC Dispatchers are professionally trained to dispatch police, fire, and medical personnel to both emergency and non-emergency calls.  Dispatchers receive a call in the computer that the Calltaker created while on the phone with a 9-1-1, Text, or Non-Emergency caller.  The Dispatcher then dispatches the appropriate responders based on the priority and type code assigned by the Calltaker.  The Dispatcher communicates with the responders and provides any pertinent information the Calltaker may add.  If the responders need additional resources, they will notify the dispatcher who coordinates wither other 9-1-1 employees to ensure the responders have what they need.

Dispatchers routinely communicate with personnel from other City bureaus, such as the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Portland Parks, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, etc., as well as Parole & Probation Officers, US Marshalls, Oregon Department of Transportation dispatch center, etc.  Many incidents require Dispatchers to coordinate with local utility companies, various security agencies, mental health responders, etc.  Dispatchers are pulled in many different directions, but responder safety is always their top concern.  When a responder is injured, 9-1-1 personnel hurt right along with them.