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Arlington County Dispatchers Clear Up Misconceptions About 911

Posted by Arlington County Virginia – Government on Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Calling 911 isn’t always as simple as picking up the phone and dialing the numbers.

April is “911 Education Month,” so Arlington County put together some short guides for when and how someone should get in touch with emergency services.

For starters, those who are deaf, hard of hearing, unable to speak or in a situation where it’s unsafe to speak can use a Text to 911 service, which debuted in the county three years ago.

Users can enter 911 into the “to” or “recipient” field. In the message, include the location of the emergency and whether the police, fire or an ambulance is needed.

The dispatcher could follow up with questions and give instructions. Those using the text feature are asked to avoid abbreviations or slang and to keep the messages short.

In a video posted last week (above) 911 dispatchers Alexis Brown and Morgan Turner fielded questions about local emergency services. Both noted that one misconception is that 911 dispatchers track calls the way other smartphone apps can.

“Unlike Uber, we don’t have the ability to figure out where you are,” said Brown. “We have the ability to figure out closest cell tower to you,” but “if you can give us an address, a street that you’re on, closest business, any resources you have to assist us,” it could help first responders reach you faster.

Turner said the difference is in how emergency services track calls.

“Apps like Uber use wifi signals. We use cell towers,” said Turner. “So give us the address first. At the very least we can send someone your way. Beyond that: name, phone number, and what’s happening.”

Turner also said many people call 911 by accident and immediately hang up, but this causes some problems for dispatchers.

“Just stay on the line and tell us it’s not an emergency,” said Turner. “If you hang up, we have to assume there’s an emergency and we will call you back.”

Brown also said those who speak languages other than English shouldn’t feel discouraged about calling emergency services. Several dispatchers speak Spanish, and for more uncommon languages dispatch services have resources to get a translator on the line.

Whether or not to call 911 can sometimes be unclear, but Turner said an ongoing threat of harm is the dividing line.

“The line can seem blurry, lots of times people aren’t sure,” said Turner. “The way I always think of it: if there’s a threat of harm, like if someone might be hurt, like a person in a medical emergency or a fire.”

For situations that require police or the fire department that don’t quite rise to the level of a 911 call, Brown noted that the county’s non-emergency line can be reached at 703-558-2222.

All told, police responded to 76,295 calls from 911 in 2018, according to year-end report released today (Tuesday). The number indicates a steady drop from 78,330 calls in 2017, and 83,511 in 2016.

Photo via Arlington County

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