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Academy offers lessons on what happens when you call 911

Ryan Stauber (left) and Dan Johnston led the 911 Citizens Academy on May 21 in the Public Safety Building. The academies are a chance for the public to gain better understanding of how the 911 dispatch works. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)

Sasquatch sightings. Giant flying apes. People using handcuffs for various discretionary activities and losing the key. Butt dials.

These are among the strangest and most memorable phone calls Ryan Stauber said he and his fellow staff members have taken at the St. Louis County 911 Dispatch office.

“We often get asked what’s your craziest call, what’s your most memorable moment,” Stauber said. “So we compiled some of the best from our staff to share with you. Obviously not all our calls are like that.”

The stories were shared as a part of the fifth 911 Citizen’s Academy May 21 led by Stauber and Dan Johnston, another 911 dispatcher. The academies are an opportunity for the public to get an inside look at what happens after they dial 911 and debunk common myths and misconceptions about 911 operations.

“The three biggest myths are that we know where you are, we know who you are and that we’re your experts in everything related to emergencies,” Johnston said.

To illustrate the misconceptions, Johnston showed a clip from an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” that shows a 911 dispatcher patching through a call to a detective to ask the caller more questions.

“That’s our job to figure out where the person is and direct the officers to them. A whole police department wouldn’t shut down,” Johnston said. “Obviously they take some artistic liberty, but that’s why Ryan and I came up with the idea to do the academy to give you a better idea.”

Regarding the first myth of knowing where you are, Stauber explained that when someone calls from a landline phone, they receive E911 information. This includes a subscriber name, an address and phone number. However Johnston said that 70 percent of 911 phone calls they receive come from cell phones.

“The cellphones — we get a phone number and that’s it. That’s absolutely all we know for certain,” Johnston said.

The location information for cellphones come from the cell companies. There are two phases of cellular triangulation. Some of the time the triangulation comes within 50 to 100 meters of the location of the call. But most of the time the location comes within 150 to 300 meters.

“Pretty reasonable when you’re in the country in the middle of nowhere, but when you’re talking about 100 meters in downtown Duluth that’s a lot of buildings,” Johnston said.

It also depends on the age of the phone, whether or not it has GPS and how much service it has.

Stauber and Johnston led the citizens through the center where 911 calls were being received to see how the dispatchers work.

Once a phone call is received by a dispatcher, they work to establish where the incident is occurring, a brief synopsis of what is happening, when the incident happened/is happening and who the suspects and victims are involved. Then the call taker will try to verify and correct response to relay with the police/fire dispatcher.

“That’s why it’s very important to stay calm and answer our questions. We’re just trying to make sure we understand everything correctly,” Stauber said.

The St. Louis County Dispatching Center coordinates with 185 different agencies covering 7,092 square miles from Duluth to the Canadian border. In 2013 the center received 304,984 phone calls.

One of those calls was another memorable one for Stauber. He received a call from a man who came to Duluth for an event. He met a couple at a bar and asked if he could park his trailer on their lawn for the night. In the middle of the night, the man could hear the couple arguing loudly so he called 911. But being from out of town, he didn’t know his location.

“He can give me the house number, but not the street. So I ask if he can go and find a street sign. So he’s out there and running to the nearest street sign and you can hear him panting on the phone. He gets there and goes, ‘It says no parking!’” Stauber said, evoking laughter from the crowd.

What you can do to help dispatchers

• Breathe - don’t blurt out information.

• When you call, ask yourself first, “Where am I?” Be ready to answer.

• Please lock your phones. If you accidentally call 911, stay on the line to explain.

• Don’t bother looking for the non-emergency number (911 lines provide valuable information). They answer after-hours for all resources.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176
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