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How to make sure you get the best possible help when calling 911

SLC911 Director Lisa Burnett shared her advice on how to make sure your 9-1-1 operator can give you the best help possible. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dialing 911 in an emergency can be nerve-racking. In the middle of a serious situation, it can be tough to get your mind in order and make sure you get the help you need.

That’s a worry that struck Dave & Dujanovic producer Andrew Hull when he called 911 to report what appeared to be a drunk driver on the road.

Audio from Dave & Dujanovic producer Andrew Hull’s call to 911.

Hull did his best to keep calm and give the operators the information they need — but it’s hard for anyone not to worry that, to the person on the other line, they’re going end up sounding like this guy who called in to 911 to complain that his son wouldn’t go to sleep:

A man calls into 9-1-1 to complain that his 16-year-old son won’t go to sleep.

Or this one who called 911 to complain that his local pharmacy’s prices were too high:

A man calls 9-1-1 to complain that his prescription prices are too high.

To find out what it’s like for the people on the other side of the line, Dave & Dujanovic spoke to SLC911 Director Lisa Burnette to ask: how can we make sure we get the best help possible from 9-1-1 operators?

Lisa Burnette’s tips for calling 911

Working behind the 911 switchboard is a stressful job. The people who take your calls deal with the darkest moments in people’s lives every day, and throughout it, Burnette says, they have to struggle to be the calm in the middle of that storm. They have to try to get the information they need to send help as quickly as possible — but that’s not always easy to do.

Keeping a few key ideas in mind, however, can make a world of a difference.

1. Stay calm

No matter how drastic a situation might be, Burnette says, you need to stay calm when calling 9-1-1.

“It’s very, very difficult to do,” Burnett admits. Still, she says it makes it far easier for operators to get the information they need if the caller can keep from panicking.

2. Answer their questions

911 operators tend to ask a lot of questions, but that’s doesn’t mean they’re dismissing problems or that help isn’t on the way. They’re just better able to help when they have more information.

Expect to hear an operator ask for your address, for your phone number, and for a lot of details about what’s going on. Every piece of information you give, Burnett says, helps them get a firmer grip on what’s happening and send out the right kind of help to the right location.

3. Don’t assume they can find you

It’s a common misconception that, if you call 911, they’ll be able to trace you using GPS. Some callers get frustrated when they’re asked for their locations, or even hang up the phone before saying where they are – but the truth, Burnett says, is that the technology to send out responders just by tracking your phone just isn’t there — or, at least, not yet.

“We’re actually working with new technology here in Salt Lake City to help us locate and identify where our callers are,” Burnett says. That technology, however, isn’t perfect. 911 operators will have a much easier time zeroing in on where you are if you can give them an address.

4. Pocket dialed? Stay on the line

If you called 911 by mistake, Burnett says that they don’t want you to hang up. If you do, they’ll have to assume you’re in trouble and they’ll have to get ahold of you – or even send responders to your location.

“It’s so helpful to have you just say on the line and say: ‘I am so sorry,'” Burnett says.

Don’t feel bad if you do pocket dial 911, either — it’s a lot more common than you might think. According to Burnett, 34 percent of the calls SLC911 received in 2018 were either pocket dials or hang-up calls.

Stay on the line and be ready to answer a few questions to assure them that you’re safe. It’ll save the 911 operators from having to try to track you down – and let them get back to the other 66 percent of callers who are in the middle of an emergency.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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