The Secret Way To Call The Police If It Isn’t Safe To Speak

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What happens when a 911 dispatcher doesn’t hear anything on the other end of the line?

Every emergency phone call is treated as a priority, but unfortunately, many aren’t exactly emergencies. For every person trapped in a burning building, there are dozens of accidental dials, so dispatchers quickly learn to filter through the non-emergency calls.

But what happens if a 911 dispatcher hears nothing but silence?

There are many legitimate reasons for a silent call; the caller might not be able to safely make noise, for example, or the caller may have a disability that prevents them from speaking. Of course, the vast majority of silent calls are simply “pocket dials.”

Still, because some silent calls are true emergencies, 911 dispatchers are trained to follow silent call protocols. That means immediately sending a police officer to the call location—if the caller used a landline. For cell phone calls, this typically isn’t a feasible option.

Contrary to popular belief, most cell phones don’t constantly transmit location data.

A report from USA Today found that cell phone location data wasn’t available for a large percentage of 911 calls, although rates varied by state (and by the availability of wireless technology). In Colorado, for instance, 58 percent of 911 calls transmitted location data, but in California, only 37 percent of calls included this vital information.

Cop car lights
Diego Fabian Parra Pabon on Unsplash

Nevertheless, dispatchers can eventually locate a signal, although not with precision—they can typically track down the caller to within an area of about a football field, which is useful in rural areas, but nearly pointless in large cities.

The good news is that tracking technology is improving. However, for the time being, there’s a big problem: What do dispatchers do when a call remains silent?

Many dispatchers will ask the caller to press numbers on the phone.

In the United Kingdom, dispatchers will ask callers to cough if they’re in an emergency situation and they can’t make noise. If the caller doesn’t respond, the call is routed through an automated system, which prompts callers to press “55” to indicate an emergency.

In Massachusetts, callers can press “1” for police, “1” for the fire department, “3” for an ambulance, “4” to say “yes,” and “5” to say “no.” This procedure is unique to Maryland, however.

In some parts of the country, you can text 911.

You’ll have to check to see whether text-to-911 is available in your area. It’s a new capability, and 911 centers need updated technology in order to handle it. Texting 911 doesn’t reveal your location, so you’ll need to include an address, and due to the limits of messaging technology, your message may take some time to reach the dispatch center.

Face with finger up to mouth,
Kristina Flour on Unsplash

As such, the FCC notes that you should always make a voice call to 911 when possible—avoid text messaging except when it’s unsafe to do otherwise.

So, what do you do if you can’t make any noise and you can’t text?

Simple: Stay on the line and listen to the dispatcher. The dispatcher is, of course, listening to you—it’s their job. Look for ways to give signals. Press buttons in a pattern to indicate that you’re engaged with the call.

“Listening is really the name of the game,” Gary Allen, a retired dispatcher, said to the New York Times. “Listen, interpret and judge against the agency’s policy. Most of the time it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

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