Helping Call-takers and Dispatchers Help You

What do you need when you call the police? What’s happening — Is it an emergency? Is it suspicious activity? Do you need to report a crime?

Whether you’re calling 911 or a non-emergency number, think about what information may be helpful; and stay on the line until the call-taker says she or he has enough information. You would be surprised at the number of times callers only say, “I need an officer,” or, think that, “My car was broken into,” is all that’s needed. But the communication center needs more.

In particular, when you call a non-emergency number, the phone system doesn’t show where you are. And if you’re cut off, or if an officer has a question later, your phone number is a mystery until you give it to the call-taker.

Two things people don’t know right off are that the call-taker isn’t wasting time, and that (unlike 800 numbers for OVC) officers aren’t always “Standing By” available for your call.

Let’s take the first concern: In an emergency, the call-takers are able to start officers heading your way even as they ask you questions. Callers can naturally feel panicky though since it can seem like help is not on the way while lot’s of questions are asked.

On the second concern: Police Departments have limited resources. And while they can plan in general for busy times (Friday night anyone?) they can’t predict specific needs at specific times.

So, calls have to be prioritized. That is, available officers will be sent immediately to life-threatening incidents like a fight with a knife, or a robbery; and other officers will stop what they are doing to respond. In contrast, let’s take a theft call where you aren’t sure when the item was taken and there is no information about who took it – this will get answered when the Dispatcher has an officer available and nearby. It may take a while if the city is real busy.

Getting back to that fight call, call-takers and dispatchers need to know: is it mostly pushing and shoving? Is someone armed with a weapon or a dangerous item? Is it two or three people against one? Can you still see it or did you have to leave before you could call? What do the people look like? All these facts and more help decide if officers need to be taken off of other matters to respond, how many officers are needed, if Paramedics may be needed, who the officers should be looking for as they arrive and many other considerations.

Even on a non-violent call, such as someone who was looking over your neighbor’s fence, communication employees and officers need the best information you can give them. For example, in the time you are calling and that a nearby officer is getting to your street, the suspicious person may have already walked out onto an arterial street or over to a shopping center. If the officer doesn’t know just who to look for (and there are usually too many people matching the description of “a man in a tshirt and jeans”) then they won’t find him. But, with a clear description of the activity and the person, officers can not only spot the person, the courts allow officers to stop and question him even if he has left the area.

So, when you are going to call the Police, please take a moment to note a few facts such as age, ethnicity, height/build and clothing colors that might not normally stick with you. And stay on the line to answer all the call-taker’s questions. You’ll make a big difference!

For more, see:

Calling the Police at Tempe PD’s web site
911 FAQ’s from ASU Police
911 Emergency Tips from Mesa PD
Calling 911 from Phoenix Police

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