20 Secrets of 911 Dispatchers

iStock.com/HHLtDave5
iStock.com/HHLtDave5

Every year, the U.S. 911 system receives about 240 million calls, and emergency dispatchers are the very first responders. They translate a caller’s situation into actionable instructions so police, fire, or medical teams can respond as quickly as possible. It’s an incredibly demanding job, with some shifts lasting up to 16 hours. That’s a lot of time spent listening to terrified callers in their most desperate moments, and it takes a certain kind of person to survive the stress. Hopefully you never have to dial 911, but if you do, here are a few things you should know about the person answering your call.

1. Most of the calls 911 dispatchers deal with aren’t emergencies.

On busy days, 911 dispatchers may get somewhere between 300 and 500 calls, and they have to answer every single one of them. However, many of them aren’t true emergencies. “Ninety-five percent are nothing calls,” says Amanda, a dispatcher of eight years in British Columbia, Canada. “They’re not people who need help. They’re people who have low coping skills. The fact you don’t know how to change the batteries in your fire alarm is not a 911 call. The fact you don’t know where you parked your car at the mall is not a 911 call. But you’ll have days where it seems that’s all you get.”

The irrelevant calls can be about anything from barking dogs to parking disputes, and in some states there are penalties for abusing the system. In 2015, a woman in Ohio was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor after calling 911 to report bad Chinese food. A man in Illinois was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for using the emergency line to request an ambulance ride to a doctor’s appointment.

“The level of distress somebody is displaying is in no way correlated to how serious their problem is,” Amanda says. “The people who are screaming the most generally have overflowing toilets. But the calmest guy will call up and say, ‘I don’t really wanna bother anybody, but my wife isn’t breathing.’”

2. 911 dispatchers have a call hierarchy.

Emergency calls don’t necessarily get responded to in the order in which they’re received. “Calls get triaged based on the level of immediate public danger,” Amanda says. So calls involving things like weapons, kids, or domestic violence get prioritized. If you just woke up and realized your car or house was broken into, unless the invader is still there, the police are told to respond when they have a free moment.

Bill Blume, a dispatcher in Virginia since 2001, says call severity also dictates whether emergency vehicles respond with or without sirens. Life-threatening events get lights and sirens. For events that are less severe but happening now, officers go quickly but without lights or sirens. And for low-priority calls, an officer might take their time. “A low code call tells officers, ‘if you need to go get some coffee or grab lunch, it’s a good time to do it on the way to this call. No matter what time officers arrive, it won’t affect the outcome,” Blume says.

3. Butt-dials are a big problem for 911.

All over the country, cell phone owners are unwittingly dialing 911 and clogging up the lines with the muffled sounds of their pants or purse pockets. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that roughly half of all 911 calls made by cell phones in New York City are accidental, which translates into about 84 million calls per year. “This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes PSAP morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls—and first responders—will be delayed,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly declared in a memo.

These accidental calls may be a waste of resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining. “We’ve had people call with the phone under their pillow while they’re having sex, or people singing while they’re driving down the road,” says Nikki, a dispatcher for nine years in Michigan.

And not all butt-dials are useless. “We once had a police chase going on and the people being pursued accidentally dialed into 911 so we could hear their conversation and let the officers know their plan,” Nikki says. One accidental 911 call in Deltona, Florida, led officers to a meth house.

4. The 911 system might give you a busy signal …

Sometimes there are more calls than dispatchers can handle, especially during emergencies that a lot of people witness, like a fire or car crash. “When you have a very public incident going on, sometimes you’ll get busy signals because there are instantly 1000 calls,” says Amanda. “The problem is that within those busy signals are some set of people calling for things that are not the public incident.”

5. … but there’s a way around it.

If you can’t get through to 911, you can try calling your local police or fire department directly through their seven-digit phone number, which you can find online. “You should have that number programmed into your phone,” says Rachael Herron, a former dispatcher in California for 15 years who is also an author. This trick lets you bypass the 911 traffic jam, but should only be used if you know your exact location, because the 911 dispatchers have better tools for locating you.

6. Whatever you do, don’t hang up on a 911 dispatcher.

The worst thing you can do to a 911 dispatcher is end the call before they answer. Every time someone calls and hangs up, dispatchers are required to call that number back. Even if you called by mistake, the best thing to do is stay on the line and explain, rather than hanging up and initiating a game of phone tag.

“I understand how frustrating and how long it can seem when you’re sitting there waiting and it feels like nothing’s happening quickly,” says Blume, “but at same time people just don’t appreciate how much a hang-up can slow the process down.”

7. A lot of callers to 911 dispatch don’t know their own location.

The most important piece of information for an emergency operator to acquire is a caller’s exact location. After all, they can’t send help if they don’t know where you are. But because not all emergencies happen at home or near a clearly-labeled street sign, many callers simply don’t know where they are when disaster strikes. “Maybe you’re stuck in a store and you didn’t pay attention to the address,” explains Amanda. “Or on the highway people are very fuzzy about where they are. In hotels people don’t know their room number.”

This requires some investigative work on behalf of the dispatcher, and everything becomes a clue. “Any descriptors are really useful, like if it’s really close to a landmark or store,” says Amanda. If the caller spots a license plate, the dispatcher can run the number and cross-reference it with the owner’s home address. If all else fails, dispatchers can send police cars to where they think the caller is and guide the officers using the sounds of the sirens over the phone.

Experience has taught dispatchers to be extra-aware of their surroundings at all times. “I used to say ‘left’ or ‘right’ but now I say ‘north, south, east, west,’” says Nikki. “I pay attention all the time now to where I am and what’s going on around me.”

8. 911 dispatchers wish you’d call from a landline.

The prevalence of cell phones means the number of 911 calls made from landlines has decreased through the years: More than 80 percent of emergency calls now come from wireless phones. But this poses a challenge for dispatchers, because unlike a landline, cell phones are not attached to a specific address.

“The absolute number one thing if there’s an emergency, please call from a landline,” says Amanda. “If you’re in an apartment building with 35 floors, it will give us an apartment number. Your cell phone will only give us an approximate.”

But this information varies by location and carrier. “We’ve discovered that Sprint and Verizon have the most accurate locations,” says Nikki. “We were once trying to locate a man with a gun, and he had Sprint, and the map showed him on one side of a pine tree and that’s exactly where he was.” In 2018, Apple and Google also both added services that transmit location data from cellphones to 911.

9. You don’t have to say anything to the dispatcher.

In some dire emergency situations, a 911 caller may be unable to speak. For example, if an intruder is in their home, or they’re choking or having a heart attack. Dispatchers are trained to ask yes-or-no questions a caller can answer with the push of a button. “We’ll tell them to press a button if they’re in the city,” explains Martha, a dispatcher in Georgia. “If they don’t press a button we’ll know they’re in a county. Or if there’s a domestic situation, we’ll ask, ‘Is he still in the room? Does he have a weapon? Has he been drinking?’”

10. 911 dispatchers don’t know what happens to callers.

One of the hardest things about being a dispatcher is the lack of closure that comes with the job. Once the first responders are on the scene, dispatchers have to hang up and move to the next call. They will probably never find out what happens to their callers. “It is the worst part,” says Jill, a 14-year veteran dispatcher in Florida. “You have this intense moment with this person, it could be the most horrible moment of their life and you’re the first one to help them, and you never find out what happens.”

11. Dispatchers have learned that sports fans procrastinate in medical emergencies.

One guaranteed slow time for 911 dispatchers is during a major sporting event, particularly the Super Bowl. “You get no calls when the game is on,” says Amanda. “None. It’s bizarre.” But dispatchers don’t have to follow the game to know when it’s over. When the buzzer goes off, the phones start ringing. “As soon as the game is over, you’ll have 20 guys having a heart attack because they weren’t willing to call during the game,” says Herron. “It’s true every single year.”

12. 911 dispatchers are very superstitious.

One word you’ll never hear a dispatcher mumble is “quiet.” Acknowledging a shift has been particularly sedate is a quick way to get an onslaught of calls, Amanda says. Acceptable alternatives include “tranquil” and “serene.”

13. Dispatchers don’t care why it happened.

Dispatchers want to know the what and where of your emergency, but never the why. “'Why' is the one question we never ask,” says Blume. “Everyone is dying to tell us why, and the thing is that has nothing to do with determining the level of safety for our officers.”

14. They’re traumatized.

One 2012 study found 911 dispatchers are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the high volume of distressing calls they receive. "This is a population of people who are routinely exposed to events that should be considered traumatic," says Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University.

“I heard a gentleman take his last breath after being stabbed,” Jill admits. “That one bothers me today and it happened seven years ago. I have a thick skin but not around my heart.”

Insomnia, paranoia, and grief can haunt dispatchers when they’re not manning the phone lines. Herron says she can’t drive around her town without remembering the bad things that happened at particular addresses. “I know the geography of grief,” she says. “I know which woman hanged herself in that window and which mother found her son dead in that bedroom.”

Some dispatchers survive by emotionally detaching, others by approaching their job from a mindset of positivity. “A lot of people I work with live with a lot of fear and assumptions that terrible things will happen in the world because that’s what they hear,” says Amanda. “But my frame that keeps me ok is I know that this person is having a terrible day whether I’m there or not, and anything I do might make things better. And most people never have to call us. The majority of people go through their days and nothing bad happens to them and that’s very powerful also. We have to remember the things we hear are rare.”

15. For dispatchers, kid calls are the worst.

Many experienced 911 operators develop pretty thick skins over the years. But emergencies involving children are an exception.

“Everyone hates a baby call,” says Herron. “If you get a call that a baby isn’t breathing, the whole room gets really, really quiet and all the dispatchers pull for the person giving CPR instructions. I’ve had a couple that have gone badly and those are hard to let go.”

16. Dispatchers have regulars.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to call 911, but some people call the number so often the dispatchers recognize them immediately and know them by name.

“We call them frequent flyers,” Blume says. “You kind of develop a relationship with them. You remember them and know how that conversation is gonna go. It may be someone prone to alcoholism or who has a history of mental illness and you know certain things that work on other calls just aren’t gonna work there.”

17. Dispatch is full of creatives.

A lot of dispatchers enter into the career through the side door, as writers or musicians looking for steady income while they pursue their art on the side. “You rarely see someone come into a job as a dispatcher where that is their career goal,” says Blume, who is an author of several books himself.

“I work with five or six people who have written and published books because that’s what they want to do but they can’t make any money doing it so they do this four days a week,” says Amanda, who took the job to supplement her magazine writing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers make an average annual salary of $39,640, a pretty decent supplemental income. But finding the right kind of person for the job is difficult considering the high stress levels and long hours, and a lot of new dispatchers quit. “Our survival rate is one-third,” Blume estimates. “In my academy we had nine people in the beginning and by the time we were done, there were three of us left.”

18. Your dispatcher might be knitting when you call.

Dispatchers are multi-taskers who thrive on adrenaline, and that’s what makes them good at their job. They can talk a caller through CPR while simultaneously typing instructions for first responders at record speeds. But between calls and on slower days, they get bored like the rest of us, and resort to browsing social media or even knitting to occupy the time.

For some veteran dispatchers, the job has become so routine they can nearly do it with their eyes closed. Nikki admits that sometimes while she’s instructing a caller on how to administer CPR, she’s simultaneously browsing Pinterest. “I’m like holy crap I just saved somebody’s life without realizing what I was doing.”

19. Dispatchers know that tasks keep people calm.

A dispatcher’s job is to get as much pertinent information as possible from a caller, and that’s hard to do when the caller is hysterical. But there are tricks that dispatchers use to calm people, even in the most terrifying situations. “I slow my language and bring my tone way down,” says Herron. “If they’re shouting, I don’t shout back because it’s human nature, if someone else talks quietly, you listen.”

One quick way to get a panicked caller to concentrate, Jill says, is to give them something to do. “If they don’t know where they’re at, I tell them to look for a piece of mail. If you give them a small task it seems to make them focus a little more and that can de-escalate their stress a little bit.”

The most important thing is to just keep talking, Blume says, because silence can make a caller feel alone, which breeds panic. Skilled dispatchers will explain exactly what they’re doing on their end of the line and why, even if it’s boring. “I’ll say ‘standby just a moment, I’m going to enter this,’ or ‘hold on I’m going to update the units, don’t hang up.’ A lot of times those little touches can completely change the tone of a conversation. It’s all about communicating.”

20. Dispatchers are human lie-detectors.

From the second they answer your call, dispatchers are listening for signs the situation is not as you say. Callers lie to them all the time for various reasons. For example, someone might exaggerate the seriousness of their situation (perhaps by reporting that gunshots have been fired when they haven’t) to get a faster police response. In a domestic abuse situation, a victim might place the call but be unable to communicate, or the abuser could somehow end up with the phone and lie on their behalf, or hang up. The dispatcher’s job is to use strategic questions to gather any revealing information they can.

“Usually you can read into tone,” says Blume. “A red flag is if, when I call back, they say the call was a mistake, that’s a big difference than if they say it was an accident. If they say it was a mistake that gives me the impression they were trying to call on purpose and clearly there was a reason why they did it. You have to be suspicious.”

A version of this piece first ran in 2015.

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”