Ty Swenson
There is a procedure to calling 911 that makes the dispatcher's job easier and gets police to the scene of the emergency more quickly.

The things you must know when you call 911

Community Police Team Officer Kiehn outlines the best way to call in a crime

Stay calm.

That is the most important factor when calling 911, whether it’s for a medical emergency or a crime, according to Community Police Team Officer Kiehn with the Seattle Police Southwest Precinct.

“The way citizens most often deal with police is through 911 calls and I think to understand how to use the system and what the system is for is the best thing I can inform you about,” Officer Kiehn said to the West Seattle blockwatch captains during their monthly meeting on Oct. 26.

He spoke primarily about how to call in a crime, however many of the tips help with any emergency.

Back to staying calm, Officer Kiehn explained that dispatch has a series of questions they need to ask callers in order to get police to the emergency location quickly.

The most basic information a caller needs to give dispatch is simply, “I am this person and I am trying to report this crime,” then just wait for the dispatcher to ask questions and guide the conversation, Kiehn said.

“If you call and try to give them a ton of information but they don’t know your address, then they cannot dispatch the call (to police on the ground),” Kiehn said. “So, that’s 45 seconds that the person is yelling over the phone and the dispatcher is unable to dispatch an officer because they don’t know where to send them yet”

Kiehn said if the caller waits for dispatch to identify location they can have an officer already on their way while still gathering information about the crime.

“At some point (the dispatcher) is going to say, “OK, now tell me what’s going on,” and that is your time to narrate and tell them what you are feeling, what you are seeing,” Kiehn said.

When reporting a crime, Kiehn said it is important to articulate why you think it is a crime, citing specific evidence.

“If you say, I think it’s a burglary because there is a guy standing out in front of my neighbor’s yard with a crowbar … that’s pretty reasonable,” Kiehn said. “But if you say, it’s a burglary because there is a guy standing out in front of my neighbor’s yard,” dispatch will need to gather further information to decipher whether a crime in happening.

Kiehn described the anatomy of a crime as having three parts: there needs to be a law that the action is in violation of, and there needs to be a suspect and a victim.
If a caller witnesses a crime, Kiehn said focusing on suspect description and license plate numbers (if a car was involved) are critically important.

He said license plates are hard for most people to remember, so 911 callers should focus on remembering the mix of letters and numbers and writing them down if at all possible.

Kiehn said callers need to focus first on things a suspect cannot change such as gender, hair color, race, build and any permanent marks, scars, tattoos or piercings.

“Those are the six general things (suspects) cannot change as they run down the street,” he said.

When describing clothing, Kiehn recommends remembering from top to bottom as it aids in recall when talking with dispatch. He said officers will primarily focus on the traits the suspect cannot change, but that clothing type and color helps as well.

Knowing the cardinal direction a suspect fled also helps police in focusing their search, Kiehn said.

At the neighborhood level, Kiehn said knowing your neighbors and letting each other know if you leave town is important in monitoring crime.

He told the cautionary tale of a man who called 911 because he saw a large Pacific Islander male taking a TV and couch from a neighbor’s house who he knew was out of town. He told the dispatcher that the owners were “tiny white people,” and officers were dispatched to the scene. Meanwhile, the caller called the owner of the house on his cell phone and it was revealed that the man taking out the TV and couch was the owner’s brother-in-law.

When a call is placed to 911, Officer Kiehn explained how the calls are taken and routed to police throughout the city.

All calls go to a central dispatch located in downtown Seattle, he said. The first thing dispatch will ask is whether or not the call is an emergency. If the answer is no, the call is transferred to the non-emergency line (which is (206) 625-5011). An example of a non-emergency is a call about finding graffiti on a wall.

Calls are then ranked by the dispatcher on a priority system from one to eight, one being most important.

“If there are 25 number sixes and we’ve got three number threes, we are going to handle those before we get to the sixes,” he said. “If it has taken an hour to handle the number threes and three more of them pop up, than we are going to handle those before we get to the number sixes as well.”

“It is not a hard set list,” Kiehn said. “It has a lot to do with how the dispatcher reads the call and how many officers are available.”

He did offer some general guidelines. Ones are generally homicides or armed robberies where there is an active victim and a suspect in the area. Towards the end of the list, he said a noise complaint would be a six or a seven.

Since the City of Seattle has Enhanced 911, dispatchers are able to see a caller’s exact location on their computer if the call is placed from a landline. If the call is placed from a cell phone dispatch will be able to identify the nearest cell tower but the caller will need to explain their exact location, Kiehn said.

For even more information on Seattle’s 911 system, visit the Seattle Police Department website at http://www.seattle.gov/police/contact/911/default.htm.

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