Calling 911: Best to err on the side of caution

by Wes Mayer

Imagine this situation.

You go to the store and park your car in an empty area of the parking lot, hoping to remove the risk of being struck by those pesky shopping carts. After shopping, you return to your car to find a van parked next to your driver's side door. The van's engine is still running, the windows are slightly tinted, but there are clearly people in the car. There were at least 50 other parking spots to choose from, and the van chose to park directly next to your car.

Do you do nothing? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they are just eating burgers in their work van on their lunch break? Do you walk to your car anyway, or do you think the vehicle is suspicious enough to report to 911?

According to www.coweta.ga.us, the creed at the Coweta County 911 Center is: 'When in doubt, send them out!' Dispatchers are available at all times of the day to help anyone who believes they may be in an emergency situation. The Coweta County 911 Center's definition of an emergency is 'any occurrence that requires the IMMEDIATE dispatch of Fire, Law Enforcement or Emergency Medical Services.' But if you don't know if the situation you are in is an emergency, feel free to call 911.

'No one should ever be afraid to call 911,' said Arlene Whisenhunt, director of Coweta County 911. 'Call any time in an emergency, when you need emergency assistance.'

There are nine dispatchers with a full crew at the county's 911 Center. Dispatchers have been trained for months on the job, have passed the State Mandate Training Program and have certificates as Emergency Medical Dispatchers and Terminal Operators on the Georgia Crime Information Computer System. Dispatchers are additionally required to take 40 hours of emergency communications education every year.

'Dispatchers have a wealth of information at their fingertips to assist callers on the other end of the phone,' said Jay Jones, director of Coweta County Emergency Management. 'When someone calls 911 and speaks to a dispatcher, other dispatchers can also be assisting the same caller by dispatching the proper agencies - all while the dispatcher on the phone with the caller is still able to give and receive vital information.'

According to Whisenhunt, it is always better to be on the safe side. Dispatchers have the knowledge to determine what type of situation a caller is in, and can quickly call any needed emergency personnel. Dispatchers can also give callers instructions on how to perform temporary medical assistance if they need to help someone injured.

Callers should be prepared to answer questions, though, Whisenhunt said. Dispatchers will need to know the situation and location of a caller. If traveling somewhere unfamiliar, people should be aware of their surroundings just in case they need to call 911.

If a caller is unable to tell a dispatcher where they are, most cell phones carriers are Phase 2 Compliant, Jones said. Phase 2 allows 911 to map the location of a caller to within 100 to 200 feet. But being able to tell dispatchers your exact location, especially if in a building or around many other people, is still preferred.

According to Jones, if in an emergency, it is always best to call 911 rather than the individual personal safety divisions directly.

'Once you make the call to 911,' Jones said, 'it sets off a chain reaction of sorts and the entire public safety network, police, fire, EMS, etc., could be activated depending on the situation. 911 has all the backdoor numbers to the necessary companies and departments and can get help to the caller quicker versus people trying to get the numbers themselves.'

The 911 Center does not take any chances with any calls. If you accidentally dial 911, dispatchers urge you not to hang up, Whisenhunt said. Be prepared to answer questions or dispatchers will immediately call the number back and treat it like an emergency.

'The 911 system for emergency services is beneficial for everyone when used properly,' said Newnan Police Chief Buster Meadows. 'Make sure and train your children not to call 911 when playing with an inactive cell phone. Officers respond to all calls to 911, and this could have an officer on a false call, when there could be valid need for an officer somewhere else.' There are some situations when it is best not to call 911. According to Jones, during the holidays, 911 will receive many calls from distressed citizens whose power has just gone out. This is one of the few situations where 911 could become backed up, and dispatchers might not be able to assist callers who actually have an emergency.

'If someone is in need of personal assistance other than an emergency, people can call 211 which is the United Way [of Greater Atlanta],' Jones said. 'They service Coweta County and have a plethora of information to help with people needing assistance paying an electric bill, food, dental work, etc.'

If you don't think you are in an emergency situation and would just like advice, the 911 Center may be reached at the non-emergency number, 770254-3911. Any information about 911 can be found by calling the administrative office at 770-254-5809.

But if you have any reason to believe you might be in an emergency, do not hesitate to call 911.



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