How 911 Works


There. I hope no one needed the above admonition, and that you are reading this because you believe in being prepared. Explained below is what actually happens when you call for help, and how best to make that call.

First, what not to do.
Don’t call the fire department!
Maybe you don’t realize in the stress of the moment that it’s not normal business hours, or if you are trying to report an emergency while there is a fire being fought, maybe everyone is already at the fire! In any case, if there is no one to answer your call, you have delayed matters considerably. Even if someone at the station answers your call, the fire department has no way to directly page firefighters and other emergency responders, and whoever answers your call must either ask you to hang up and call 911 (which is usually what they should do), or try to get information from you and then call 911 and report what you have said. In either case, that’s more delay, plus an opportunity for mistakes to be made in relaying the information.

So exactly what happens when you call 911?
Different parts of the country, and even different jurisdictions within California, respond to 911 calls in different ways. In western Nevada County, 911 calls from non-cellular phones are answered by a dispatcher in the Sheriff’s Office. (With the exception of the city of Grass Valley, where 911 calls are answered by the Grass Valley Police Department dispatcher.) This individual is trained to quickly determine if a genuine emergency exists, and if so, he or she will transfer the call to the Grass Valley Command Center, located at the Grass Valley Airport. Dispatchers there are trained to efficiently get information from you as to the exact nature and location of the emergency, and have the technology to pinpoint the location you are calling from, if necessary. It is these individuals who then call out the troops. They know which emergency responders are available, in whose jurisdiction the emergency is occurring, and what response is appropriate. Depending on the need, this may include local fire departments, CalFire stations, Tahoe National Forest crews, Washington Ridge crews, ambulances, air ambulances, sheriff’s deputies, CHP officers, and air attack bombers and/or helicopters.

We are quick to lavish well-deserved praise on the first responders who help us in times of need, but the Command Center dispatchers are the real angels behind the scenes. They have the authority to call out all of the resources listed above, plus any others I may have forgotten or don’t know about, and are expected to call out the right people for each incident, and to do it quickly. Throughout the life of the incident, guided by on-scene personnel, they keep track of all resources present, call out more when needed, provide information from other agencies if requested by the incident commander, and when the incident is over they document who was there, for how long, and when they were released. Last year the Command Center handled over 25,000 emergency calls. Talk about heroism under stress!

You probably noticed that I excluded cell phones from the above description.
The fact is, technology and procedures are not yet available or in place to handle cell phone 911 calls as efficiently as land line 911 calls. The problem is, it’s hard to tell where a cell call originates, and often the caller is not from the area, and is also unclear as to exactly where he or she is calling from. Since cell calls can come from anywhere, the decision was made in our region of Northern California to have them answered by California Highway Patrol personnel in Sacramento, who then, from their broader knowledge base, determine how best to proceed. Although they are good at their job, confusion can arise. Of particular interest to those of us in Western Nevada County is the fact that there is an intersection of Highway 49 and a Pleasant Valley Road in both Nevada and El Dorado counties, and it has happened that responders have been dispatched to a vehicle accident at the wrong one!

What to do about it?
There is a “short cut” to the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher that can be used from a cell phone to avoid the Sacramento CHP link. That is to call the Sheriff’s Office number directly. The number is 265-7880. The same person will answer this call as will answer if you dial 911 from a land line, and will then continue the dispatch process in the same manner. Please note that calling 911 from a cell phone almost always works just fine, with help being dispatched to your emergency in a timely, efficient manner. We are presenting you with options. It is certainly easier to remember and to dial 911 than 265-7880. You may feel it’s not worth the effort to remember and use the 265 number. On the other hand, if you feel involving Sacramento in your cell phone call for help wastes too much time, and has too much possibility for confusion, please call the sheriff’s dispatcher directly. However, note that from a non-cellular phone, i.e. a land line, the 265 number is no better than 911, and it takes longer to dial, so always call 911 in this case.