How Does 911 Work? A Guide from a Former Telecommunicator

by Hfbtech

Share now:

We’re taught to call 911, 112, or 999 for help in an emergency, and no matter what, someone would be there to help. But have you ever stopped to think, “how does 911 work?” It’s more than just a person answering a telephone: it’s a series of complex systems, protocols, and technologies that work tirelessly to ensure the right help gets to the right people at the right time. 

From computer-aided dispatch systems to emergency response data platforms, there’s so much going on behind the scenes to keep us safe – but that safety hinges on the heroism of telecommunicators in the 911 center and first responders in the field. We’ll take you through the ins and outs from the perspective of a former 911 telecommunicator and current first responder, Tracy Eldridge. 

Inside the 911 center

A typical 911 center console
A call-taking console inside a typical 911 center

If you remember the show Rescue 911, you may have seen a somewhat glamorized idea of how 911 works. Calls were answered immediately, first responders showed up in seconds, and generally every call worked out well in the end.

When I began my first shift as a 911 telecommunicator, I was in for a harsh reality. After an unnervingly short training period, I was honored with the task of answering the call, and many times that call was placed during the highly emotional events of someone’s worst day. 

As a telecommunicator, it was my responsibility to strategically question the caller, calm their emotional state if necessary and equip the first responders in the field with the most accurate information I could obtain, so they could reach those in need as quickly and safely as possible. I often sat lying in wait for their call for help from the dimly lit nucleus of public safety: the 911 center.

How does 911 answer calls?

Although the center is usually far from the public eye, it’s where some of the most important functions during an emergency are performed. This is the place the telecommunicator performs duties that can only be described as organized chaos. No matter the size of the center, the equipment is often the same. 

Each console consists of several computers and monitors that house software that allows them to answer emergency and non-emergency calls for service, document all the details of any given incident, determine and dispatch resources, and research investigative databases to identify the missing and wanted. 

RELATED: How 911 Centers Use RapidSOS to Cope with COVID-19

In some 911 centers, the call taker and dispatcher duties are performed by the same person while in others, the roles are separated into call takers and dispatchers. In this case, as the call-taker speaks to the caller and carefully documents the gathered information into the computer-aided dispatch system, the dispatcher will then alert appropriate personnel to respond, then track and document their every move. Some calls only require a police response, some only fire or EMS, and then some require all disciplines. 

The telecommunicator can be compared to an air traffic controller. They have their finger on the pulse of every aspect and moving piece of an incident. They carefully determine where they are going, who is going, where they all are, what they all need – they notify and deliver additional resources, verify and validate official information, and determine warrant, protection order, and missing person status.

The 911 location challenge

I remember one call pretty vividly, I walked in for my shift, it was eerily quiet. As I debriefed with the previous shift, a 911 call came in. I had not even taken my seat yet and as I raised the phone to my ear, I could already hear her screams. 15 years later, I still hear them and know her name, Abby. In a split second, I knew the importance of staying focused on “the where” versus “the what.” I was prepared to do all I could to find this caller.  I knew based on experience that I may have to work twice as hard for that location, simply because I knew it was a call from a wireless device. 

As my 18-year-old caller continued to endlessly scream, I used every tool in my toolbox to calm her down, once I was able to break through her hysteria I determined she was reporting a motor vehicle crash that resulted in a fatality. 

Trying to get her location was near impossible, primarily because no updated location was returned from the cellular network and her emotional state. For what felt like forever,  all I had to work with was the location of the cell tower that delivered the call which was approximately 7 miles from the crash location. 

It was not until a passerby arrived home about 1 mile away and called 911 from their landline phone that I could locate the accident. Once all the responders arrived on the scene, I sat in silence: my heart ached for the victim and his family, knowing he was seriously injured and may survive. I had no way to know who to call – his car was leased to a business that was closed and they could not find his license in the mangled wreck, but they did find his cell phone. But sadly it was locked, the only call that could have been made was to 911. I recall, wishing there was a way to access emergency contacts on that phone. For me, it was hard knowing someone may be waiting for him to arrive home, fearing the worst and it being true.

911 and public safety technology

Contrary to what most citizens believe, 911 is not able to track you, and doesn’t automatically know where you are, even though your smartphones know where you are the majority of the time. An emergency call does not simply route to a 911 center, nor does the location from the call just automatically appear. The journey from the device to the call-takers’ ear travels through many switches and databases and more often than not, fails to deliver the precise location of the caller. Until recently telecommunicators could easily spend the better part of the first minute of a call trying to determine, confirm, and validate the location of the caller. 

In addition to my time as a 911 telecommunicator, I am also a firefighter and EMT.  As a field responder, I have to put trust in the voice that is my lifeline on the other side of the radio. Having knowledge of both sides of the radio, I am well aware of the complexity of their many responsibilities, however, many in the field are not. It is paramount that the telecommunicator has access to any and all tools available that will allow them to flawlessly execute a swift and safe response for both responders and bystanders.

Mental health and first responders

Tracy Eldridge in the 911 center
Tracy Eldridge coordinating emergency response

The telecommunicator is the “first” first responder on the scene of most emergencies, they are exposed to situations where sounds are etched in their mind forever. A friend of mine once said, “my ears have seen things that my brain will never forget.”

Many telecommunicators visualize the incidents as they unfold based on the verbal description and sounds they hear as they process the call: I will forever hear the screams of the 18-year-old caller that one night, who was on her way home from celebrating her birthday with her friends and happened across an accident that took the life of a stranger. Neither of us would ever be the same after that night.

The system I described relies on telecommunicators and first responders to go above and beyond the call of duty, and pull out all the stops to get the right people and equipment to the right place. However, technology like RapidSOS’ emergency response data platform is supplying public safety with tools to assist them in doing their job more efficiently, making all of our communities and families safe.

RapidSOS is working with some of the world’s most innovative companies to get data to 911 from our smartphones, smart devices, and connected technologies. As a 911 professional that had to leave the profession I loved because of PTSD, I am blessed to have been given an opportunity to work for a technology company that allows me to support 911 as a mental health advocate. 

Be sure to check out my podcast, On Scene First with Tracy Eldridge, where I talk about public safety and technology, interview public safety difference makers, and dive into stories about the people who are saving lives on both sides of the call.