The 9-11 System Needs Help


Each day across this country, lives are saved because a dedicated 9-11 operator dispatched emergency personnel to help a panicked person. Every year there are some 240 million urgent calls made to this “one nation, one number” system. The value of the 9-11 organization is beyond question.

But how many times have you heard a recording of a 9-11 call in which the operator seems bored, uninterested or downright rude?

The latest incident occurred when a 14-year-old called from the back seat of a car to report her father and his fiance had been struck by a hit-and-run driver while changing a tire. Sitting alone on the Baltimore-Washington Beltway, she and her little brother were scared to death.

“They just laying here. Nothing. They are just laying here,” she sobbed.

“OK, let’s stop whining. Let’s stop whining. It’s hard to understand you,” the uncompassionate-sounding operator told her. And then when she continued to beg for help to come he scolded her in a dismissive tone.

“Let’s stop worrying about ‘hurry up and get there’ … we’re already on our way.” The young girl’s father and his fiance died at the scene.

There has got to be a better, more compassionate way to handle calls from people who are experiencing the worst moments of their life. Something more than an operator’s condescending and repetitive admonition to, “Calm down, calm down … ” as heard on so many of these 9-11 tapes.

Dr. Brian Russell, a psychologist who has worked with law enforcement, believes operators need to learn to think like the victim they’re talking to. The rote message to “calm down,” is the wrong one.

“There’s a reasonable chance that you’re going to hear that as me (the operator) minimizing what you’re experiencing,” Russell said during a conversation from his Kansas headquarters. “And if so, there’s a reasonable chance that you’re going to become even more emotional in your desperation to get me to understand how bad the situation is.”

There are countless examples of callers becoming more and more agitated as the 9-11 operator dispassionately asks questions. Many times the operator doesn’t bother to tell the caller that help is already on the way, leaving them ever more frantic and believing the seriousness of the situation is not being understood.

Time is the enemy in all these situations, so getting a proper location of the emergency — be it a crime-in-progress, a fire or the need for medical rescue — should be paramount.

Yet one widely referenced dispatcher-training manual suggests this order of questioning:
— What happened?
— Weapons?
— When did it occur?
— Where did it happen?
— Suspect description?

There is no national protocol on how to question a caller, but departments using this training method (offered in 2013 by the National Emergency Number Association) may be wasting valuable time by not asking for an address until question No. 4.

Dr. Russell thinks one of the first things an operator should say — in a composed and empathetic sounding way — is a question like, “Let’s figure out where you are so I can send you help.” He stresses that callers might very well be in shock and may have to be asked several times before it “registers” with them.

I’d like to see operators who get exasperated with sobbing, cursing or rambling callers re-trained, suspended or even fired if they do it repeatedly. I’d like to see better personality screening at the point of hire. Paying operators more might attract more suitable applicants.

None of this is to say there aren’t wonderful 9-11 operators out there. I’ve listened to countless recordings of heroic conversations. An operator in Iowa helped a woman trapped in a runaway SUV travelling at speeds of up to 119 miles an hour successfully disable the vehicle and walk away. An operator in Kentucky helped a frantic mother save her 17-month-old baby whose eyes had rolled back in her head. And there are too many instances to mention where a 9-11 operator successfully handled a call from a child reporting an incapacitated parent.

But it’s those cringe-worthy calls like the “stop whining” one we remember. They embarrass their departments and, worse yet, expose cities to multi-million-dollar lawsuits. Many filed by members of minority communities. The very group, according to Dr. Russell, that law enforcement cannot afford to offend.

We all pay for the sins of the 9-11 operator who responds poorly. We should all demand they do better.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at or reach her via email

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