In some 911 calls, fake storylines and impromptu acting could avert tragedy.
When an Ohio woman called 911 to say her mother’s boyfriend was on a violent tirade, she couldn’t risk letting the man hear who she was talking to.
Instead, she pretended to order a pizza and used code words until the 911 dispatcher understood what she was trying to say.
That ordeal ended well for the caller, and the dispatcher was praised for his clever questioning and astuteness.
But there’s no universal code language to let dispatchers know you’re in trouble, said April Heinze, 911 operations director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
So how should you call 911 discreetly when you can’t let an attacker or abductor know who you’re talking to?
Find some way of saying your address immediately
The most important thing to tell a dispatcher is your address, even if you can’t say anything after that.
“If you don’t know your location or don’t have an address, provide the best location you can,” Heinze said. That could include landmarks or any description of what’s around you.
In the Ohio case, the woman blurted out her address as soon as the dispatcher answered her call.
“I would like to order a pizza at [address],” she said.
“You called 911 to order a pizza?” the dispatcher asked.
“Uh, yeah. Apartment [number],” she replied.
“This is the wrong number to call for a pizza,” the dispatcher said.
“No no no no no no no, you’re not understanding,” the caller said.
“I’m getting you now,” the dispatcher replies.
The dispatcher then asks a series of yes-no questions. Moments later, police arrived and arrested the suspect.
Heinze said it’s especially important to give a precise location because 80% of 911 calls are made with cell phones. And it’s much harder to trace the exact location of a cell phone than it is to track a landline phone.
Don’t assume the dispatcher will understand your code words
Calling 911 with a fake pizza order is clever, but it’s not a new concept.
A 2015 Super Bowl ad portrayed a woman calling 911 to order a pizza when she was actually trying to report domestic violence.
But dispatchers aren’t trained to pick up certain code words as clues that someone needs help.
“There’s over 6,000 911 call centers in the United States,” Heinze said. “If we used one special code or even a few code words, to get that word out to the public, then all the bad guys would also know.”
Instead, callers should use their tone of voice to convey the urgency.
“Sometimes you’ll get someone who’s whispering on the phone,” she said. “That in itself is a clue that there is something going on here.”
Be creative and persistent
Heinze said it’s important for callers not to give up — and for dispatchers to not dismiss them too quickly.
Several years ago, when Heinze was working as a 911 dispatcher in Michigan, a woman called and acted like she was calling her mother.
Heinze figured out what was happening: The woman was trying to make a domestic violence report.
“You simply start asking questions: ‘You are aware you’re not talking to your mother?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you by yourself?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is that person with you male? Yes or no.’ ”
If the call taker doesn’t understand what you’re trying to convey, “then definitely be persistent,” Heinze said. “You’ve got to get through to them.”
Text 911 if you can
In some cases, you might not be able to say anything to the dispatcher. In an active shooter situation, it might be best to stay silent.
About one-third of 911 call centers in the country allow users to text 911 instead of calling, Heinze said.
It’s not available everywhere yet because 911 centers are locally operated, and some might not have the capability or the funding to deploy a “text to 911” system.
The Federal Communications Commission has a database of the 911 call centers that can accept 911 texts.
Those who try to text a call center that doesn’t accept text messages will get an autoreply.
If you’re not able to text nor speak during an emergency, Heinze said you should still call 911.
“At least call 911 and have an open line so they can hear what’s going on in the background,” she said.