How to use 9-1-1

Picture showing a BOEC dispatcher.
Learn how to use 9-1-1, whether it's via landline, cell phone, or text.
On this page

By cell phone / smartphone

When to call 9-1-1

If your cell phone dials 9-1-1 and you hang up, there is a good chance the call still went through to the call center.  This means a 9-1-1 calltaker will be notified that a call came from your cell phone number.  The calltaker will then attempt to call you back to find out whether you have an emergency or not.  There are times when these types of calls do not make it to the 9-1-1 center so do not hang up.

Roughly 87% of all 9-1-1 calls in Multnomah County are made from cell phones.  Cell phone calls provide 9-1-1 calltakers with your phone number and an approximate location of where your call is coming from.  Location accuracy can vary from 50 to 300 meters in any direction and in some cases, no location is received.  Cell phone calls are routed based on a triangulation of the nearby cell towers.  As a result, you may end up calling the wrong 9-1-1 center.  The calltaker you speak with should be able to transfer you to the appropriate 9-1-1 center.

Cell service is unpredictable and your call may be disrupted abruptly.  If this happens, dial 9-1-1 immediately.  If you are using an old cell phone that does not have service, we are unable to call you back.  You MUST dial 9-1-1 again.  When dialing 9-1-1 from a cell phone while driving, be sure to stop your vehicle if it is safe to do so.  It is difficult to obtain the necessary information if you are moving further away from the emergency.  If you are being followed or chased, be sure to stay in the area so responding officers can find you.  Consider driving around the block.  The 9-1-1 calltaker can help coordinate the officers locating you.

When in a public area, be aware of those around you who may be calling 9-1-1 to report the same incident as you.  9-1-1 can get inundated with calls reporting the same situation.  If you know someone else is calling 9-1-1, do not call yourself unless you have additional information that no one else has.  If possible, coordinate with the other caller to let you talk with the 9-1-1 Calltaker when they are finished.  When 9-1-1 is inundated with calls reporting the same incident (e.g., an injury accident on the freeway, a fight in a public location, etc.), other callers to 9-1-1 may have to wait on hold to report their own unrelated emergency incident.

By landline

When to call 9-1-1

9-1-1 calls placed from a landline telephone are routed directly to the 9-1-1 center. The 9-1-1 calltaker receives the billing information for your landline telephone, which consists of the resident’s name, address, and telephone number.  Calltakers will still ask you to confirm this information as some residents have their telephone bill sent to a different address.  In those situations, the information 9-1-1 receives is not the location you are calling from.  Contact your telephone provider to see about updating this information so it presents correctly to 9-1-1. 

If you have the option of calling from a landline phone or a cell phone, the landline phone provides more information about your location and may have a better reception than your cell phone.  However, your cell phone may be more convenient in case you need to move, go near a patient requiring medical aid, etc.  The most important thing is to know the location where help is needed.

Via text messaging

When to text 9-1-1

To report an emergency using Text-to-911:

  • Go to your cell phone text messaging screen / messaging app
  • Enter "911" (with no dashes or spaces) in the "TO" field
  • Type your message
  • Hit "SEND"

Over VoIP

When to call 9-1-1

Voice over Internet Protocal (VoIP) phone service is an alternative to a traditional landline phone.  It is important that you understand the potential issues when dialing 9-1-1.  If you have a VoIP phone and dial 9-1-1, you may not connect with your local 9-1-1 center.  Contact your service provider to ensure they have your correct address information.  This will ensure your call is routed to the appropriate 9-1-1 center.  If you do not do this, your call may be answered by a national call center, which is located in Canada.  They should be able to transfer your call to the appropriate 9-1-1 center, but the delay just might be the difference between life and death.  If you move and maintain your VoIP phone, contact your service provider to update your information promptly.  It is important to be familiar with your service providers procedures for updating your address. 

If your power is out or your internet connection is down, your VoIP phone service may not work.  Consider having a cell phone as a backup.

Interpreter / Translator Needed

We utilize Language Link for over-the-phone interpretation services.  Language Link is available 24/7, connects within seconds and provides a state-of-the-art call center with high quality interpreters.  They offer interpreters for more than 240 languages and dialects.  All Language Link interpreters hold a professional certification, have at least two years of professional interpreting experience, and sign a confidentiality agreement. 

Many cultures mistrust or fear law enforcement (police).  Many people in various cultures grew up in an environment where local authorities were not always working in the public's best interests, and they bring those fears with them to the United States.  In some cases, the immigration status may influence whether someone calls 9-1-1 due to fears (real or assumed) of deportation.  Callers to 9-1-1 may be reluctant to provide their full name, date of birth, address, and other personal information and may not understand why this information is necessary.  They may become suspicious and even uncooperative, which can slow down emergency response times.

If you or someone you know does not speak English, dial 9-1-1 and advise the Calltaker what language you speak.  It helps us if you are able to tell us the language you speak in English.  We also encourage people to learn how to say the type of help they need (e.g., police, fire, medical) and their address.  If nothing else, we can start emergency responders with that limited information while we conference the call with an interpreter.  As we conference in an interpreter, the caller may hear some clicking sounds or even a ringing sound.  It is important to remain on the line and do NOT hang up. 

Once an interpreter is on the line, please answer each of their questions concisely and allow them to talk with the 9-1-1 Calltaker.  The calltaker will process the information into a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system and relayed to a dispatcher, who dispatches the appropriate responders.  Calltakers may keep you on the line to obtain additional information for the responders.  Responders can be started while the Calltaker is still asking you questions.  Answering questions does NOT delay the response.

Language Link is available for non-emergency calls, as well.  Dial the Non-Emergency Number, press one at the recording, and wait for a Calltaker to come on the line.  Remember, whether you call 9-1-1 or Non-Emergency, stay calm and answer all of the Calltakers questions.  Speak slowly and clearly and provide short answers.   Lastly, help can be started in emergency situations while you are still talking with a 9-1-1 calltaker.

Tips & Guidelines

When to call 9-1-1

9-1-1 is appropriate for situations involving an immediate threat to life or property.  This includes in-progress crimes, fire-related incidents occurring now, and medical situations happening now.  If your call does not fit this criterion, please call the Non-Emergency number.

Know the location of the emergency

When you dial 9-1-1, knowing your location is vital to ensure police, fire, or medical help gets to you.  Learn your compass directions, such as north, south, east, and west, as well.  Narrowing down a location is vital for emergency responders.  We use directions to describe where an incident is located (e.g., on 122nd south of Powell) or a specific direction (e.g., the suspect ran north on 122nd from Powell). 

Stay calm and answer all questions

It is imperative that you stay calm and answer all of the calltakers questions, quickly and concisely.  9-1-1 calltakers are trained to get the most important information as quickly as possible to get help on the way to an emergency situation.  Allow the calltaker to ask you all the questions they need in order to get help there in the timeliest manner.  The answers you provide are very important in helping the Calltaker understand the situation, then relay that information through the Dispatcher to the responding police, fire, or medical personnel.   

Limitations with cell phones and VoIP

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires wireless carriers to provide the cell phone number and the caller's location for 9-1-1 calls within 100 meters 67% of the time and within 300 meters 90% of the time.  This technology only provides general location information and does not include whether you are inside a structure, which floor you are on, etc. 

VoIP phones will ring into a call center in Canada when you dial 9-1-1 if the VoIP service has not been set up for 9-1-1 service.  The call center can typically transfer your call to the appropriate 9-1-1 center, but there is a delay involved.  Speak with your service provider to ensure your VoIP service has been set up to ring in to your local 9-1-1 center.  Don't forget to update your information if you move.

Text-to-911 is available in Multnomah County

Text-to-911 is the ability to send a "short" text message (SMS) or other kind of text message to 9-1-1 from your mobile phone or device.  However, you should always make a voice call to 9-1-1 during an emergency whenever possible.  Text-to-911 is a useful for members of the community who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech disability.  Use Text-to-911 if you find yourself in a situation in which a voice call to 9-1-1 may be dangerous or impossible.  But you should always make a voice call to 9-1-1 if you are able to do so safely.  Remember the motto:

Call if you can, text if you can't. 

If you dial 9-1-1, do not hang up

If you accidentally or inadvertently dial 9-1-1, do NOT hang up.  Stay on the line and tell the Calltaker that there is no emergency and you dialed 9-1-1 by mistake.  This saves the Calltaker from having to call you back to find out if there is an emergency or not.  In some cases, if they do not reach anyone, they may send police to check your address for an emergency.  This process may take upwards of two minutes; that's two minutes someone else may have to wait on hold with a true emergency.  Help prevent accident 9-1-1 calls by locking and storing your cell phone carefully.

Teach your children how to call 9-1-1

Be sure your children know what 9-1-1 is, how to dial 9-1-1 from your landline phone and cell phone, and to trust the 9-1-1 Calltaker.  Be sure to that at least one phone in your home is easily accessible.  When your child dials 9-1-1, they need to know their own name, their parents name(s), and most importantly, their address.  Tell them to answer all of the 9-1-1 Calltakers questions and to stay on the phone until they are instructed to hang up.  Keep an Emergency Contact List on the refrigerator.  The list should contain the telephone numbers for 9-1-1 and Non-Emergency, your address including the City, parent’s names, parents cell phone numbers and work numbers, a neighbor’s name, address, and phone number, and an emergency contact such as, a family member, close friend, etc.  The Emergency Contact List should be within reach of the child should they need to call 9-1-1.  Ensure the child knows to never dial 9-1-1 unless there is an emergency.  Never give old cell phones to children to use as toys; many de-commissioned cell phones can still dial 9-1-1.

Multi-lingual/multi-cultural speakers

9-1-1 calltakers in Multnomah County utilize a language translation service to communicate with multi-lingual/multi-cultural callers.  Teach your non-English speaking family and friends to learn the English word for the language they do speak (e.g., Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, etc.).  Encourage them to learn the words police, fire, and ambulance in English.  9-1-1 calltakers do not need a lot of information to get help started so even if someone speaks very little English, encourage them to call 9-1-1 when necessary. 

Power outages

Do not dial 9-1-1 when the power goes out.  Contact your local power company.  Be patient because everyone else without power may be calling, as well.  9-1-1 may not have any answers as to why the power is out.  By calling 9-1-1, you are keeping a calltaker from helping someone else with a true emergency. 

9-1-1 is appropriate in situations where someone has a medical need based on the power being out (e.g., their home oxygen concentrator is not working) or there are live wires down on the ground, etc.