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September 8, 2008



A schoolboy recently dialed 911 to ask for help with his homework. It is an amusing story that illustrates the widespread use of the emergency telephone number.

Haleyville, Alabama, set up the first 911 system in the country in 1968. That same year, the service was established in Nome, Alaska.

911 is reserved for true emergencies only, not for conversations, answering questions, or for situations that do not require immediate attention, such as non-working streetlights or parking meters. Hoax calls to 911 may result in a criminal charge.

Until 2001, many United States communities celebrated September 11 as 911 day. After the terrorist’ attacks on that day in 2001, the reminders of 911 were discontinued.

In May 2006, two children in Texas helped stop a four-man burglary in progress in their own house. That same month, a four-year-old boy helped save his mother’s life, and a two-year-old beagle called for help when her person had a diabetic seizure – all by dialing 911. In the beagle’s case, she pushed speed dial number 9 and left the phone off the hook.

There are 200 million 911 calls per year in the United States. 911 call-takers encounter a mind-boggling array of emergencies in their work.

One operator in Florida picked up a call from a man who was in the process of choking. The call-taker walked the man through the process of performing the Heimlich maneuver on himself using the back of a chair. She told him, after one failed attempt, “I want you to try to push upward right under your belly button. Can you do that? Come on, sweetie, try it for me.”

The man dislodged a piece of chicken and was able to breathe again before the dispatched firefighters made it to his house.

Teaching children to use 911 in an emergency could be an important lesson. Role-playing is a one way to teach various emergency scenarios and give your child the confidence he or she will need to handle them.

Nationwide, Public Safety Departments report between 15 and 20 percent of incoming calls as non-emergencies.

A 911 emergency is a life-threatening situation in which every second counts. This includes serious medical issues like a heart attack, uncontrolled asthma attack, seizure, childbirth in progress, or anything involving large amounts of blood.  Other life-threatening situations like a fire, an armed robbery in progress, or a serious car accident with injuries should also be reported.

A dispatcher in Salt Lake City had a unique call from a four-year-old Jessica Holden. Woody Bartlett answered Jessica’s call. 

Woody: “911… Hello?”

Jessica: “Hello. Umm… My mom fell.”

Woody: “Your mom fell? What did she fall off of?”

Jessica: “She fell off our house.”

Woody: “Is mommy bleeding at all?”

Jessica: “Uh… She hurts really bad.”

When Bartlett asked where her mom was bleeding, Jessica said outside. But after some prompting, she was able to give more information.

Jessica: “She’s hurt on her head.”

The call-takers couldn’t understand Jessica’s address, so they traced the call and dispatched medical teams within about four minutes. Later, when they listened to the tape very closely, Jessica had even said her address correctly. The four-year old saved her mother’s life.

Lisa Caddy, the 911 Supervisor said, “We have a lot of bad calls, and we have a lot of good calls, but this is the one that reminds us why we’re here.”

The human element in 911 calls is sometimes funny. Poor communication between the caller and the call-taker can be confusing. These are actual exchanges.


Dispatcher: “911. What is your emergency?”

Caller: “I heard what sounded like gunshots coming from the brown house on the corner.”

Dispatcher: “Do you have an address?”

Caller: “No, I have on a blouse and slacks, why?”


Dispatcher: “911. What is your emergency?”

Caller: “Someone broke into my house and took a bite out of my ham and cheese sandwich.”

Dispatcher: “Excuse me?”

Caller: “I made a ham and cheese sandwich and left it on the kitchen table and when I came back from the bathroom, someone had taken a bite out of it.”

Dispatcher: “Was anything else taken?”

Caller: “No, but this has happened to me before, and I’m sick and tired of it!”


Dispatcher: “911.”

Caller: “I’m having trouble breathing. I’m all out of breath. I think I’m going to pass out.”

Dispatcher: “Sir, where are you calling from?”

Caller: “I’m at a pay phone. North and Foster.”

Dispatcher: “Sir, an ambulance is on the way. Are you an asthmatic?”

Caller: “No.”

Dispatcher: “What were you doing before you started having trouble breathing?”

Caller: “Running from the Police.”


Dispatcher: “911. What is the nature of your emergency?”

Caller: “I’m trying to reach nine eleven but my phone doesn’t have an eleven on it.”

Dispatcher: “This is nine eleven.”

Caller: “I thought you just said it was nine-one-one.”

Dispatcher: “Yes, ma’am nine-one-one and nine-eleven are the same thing.”

Caller: “Honey, I may be old, but I’m not stupid.”


Dispatcher: “911. What’s the nature of your emergency?”

Caller: “My wife is pregnant and her contractions are only two minutes apart. “

Dispatcher: “Is this her first child?”

Caller: “No, you idiot! This is her husband!”



Dispatcher: “911. What is your emergency?”

Caller: “My house is on fire!”

Dispatcher: “Tell us how to get there.”

Caller: (Pause) “Don’t you still have that pretty red truck?”


© Kirk H. Neely

September 2008



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