How 9-1-1 Works
Sooner or later it will probably happen to you. Sooner or later it will probably happen to you. An emergency strikes and you need an ambulance, fire equipment or police—now.
Don’t waste precious seconds trying to call your local fire or police station. Just dial 9-1-1, by voice or TTY. If you do try calling them first, you will most likely be redirected to call 9-1-1, since it's the 9-1-1 dispatchers that have the training and control to gather the proper information and dispatch all necessary resources for the situation. And although you may be tempted to call friends and family, if you are experiencing an emergency, it's important to call 9-1-1 first.
In Fairfax County, your 9-1-1 emergency call is automatically routed to the Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC), where highly trained personnel are ready to respond and get you the help you need.
Land line calls: When you call from a pay phone or phone installed at a residence or business, the phone’s number determines which 9-1-1 call center (public safety answering point) you reach.
Cell phone calls: Cell phones transmit your call to the nearest cellular tower and from there to the closest 9-1-1 call center. Sometimes if you are close to a county or state border, you might get the wrong 9-1-1 call center, but the employees there will direct your call to the correct call center for help. And although many modern phones and devices transmit GPS data, there is a margin of error that comes with this data, so it's still important to try to maintain an awareness of your location and surroundings in the event you need to call 9-1-1. A person who knows where they are can usually provide better, and more reliable information than GPS data can.
Hearing or speech impaired callers: Fairfax County 9-1-1is equipped with a text telephone (TTY) device to allow people who are hearing or speech impaired to communicate through their own TTY device. If you use a TTY/TDD, press the TTY keys several times after the call is answered; this may reduce the time necessary to respond to the call. Give the call taker time to connect their TTY. Tell the call taker what is needed and provide your name, phone number and address of your location. If it is safe, stay on the telephone to answer the call taker's questions. If you do not have TTY/TDD, call 9-1-1 and don’t hang up. This will leave the line open. In most cases your phone’s address will be displayed on the call taker's screen and help will be sent.
Non-English speakers: If you do not speak English, Fairfax County 9-1-1 will contact the Language Line to provide an interpreter. It helps us if you are able to tell us the name of the language you speak in English, so we can tell the Language Line which interpreter to choose. To learn more about the Language Line Services, click HERE.
Information given to call takers is processed into a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system and relayed to a dispatcher, who reviews the information and dispatches the appropriate public safety units—police, fire or both. Dispatchers can see the information and send help to you even as the call taker is talking to you on the phone. Answering questions does not delay response.
We will often keep you on the phone to obtain more information for the responders who are on their way. For example, emergency medical services paramedics may need to know what kind of medication the patient takes every day to improve the quality of care they can provide.
Director Steve Souder recently participated in a podcast discussing some of these 9-1-1 call processing procedures:
Please remember, 9-1-1 is only for emergencies. For routine questions or non-emergency situations in Fairfax County, dial 703-691-2131. To report road hazards or ask road-related question, 24/7, call 1-800-FOR-ROAD (800-367-7623).
Guidelines for Calling 9-1-1
Stay calm - dispatchers can't help you if they can't understand
you. Take a deep breath and think before you talk. Speak slowly and
- Know your location and tell the dispatcher the exact address (apartment/suite number, intersection, interstate mile markers) where the help is needed.
- Answer all questions. The call taker will have questions for you and may even ask you to do something to help. It is important that you answer the questions as best as you can. DO NOT HANG UP unless you are in danger or the dispatcher tells you to do so.
State the nature of the emergency. Stay on the line to answer
further questions the dispatcher may have (Emergency Medical
- Send someone to meet the emergency equipment if at all possible. It's hard to find an address on a dimly lit street in the middle of the night.
- Teach your children how to call 9-1-1. Be sure they know what 9-1-1 is, can dial from your home and cell phone, and trust the 9-1-1 call taker. Make sure they are physically able to reach at least one phone in your home. When calling 9-1-1, your children need to know their name, parent's name, telephone number and especially their address. Tell them to answer all the dispatcher's questions and stay on the phone until they're told to hang up.
- If you call 9-1-1 even by mistake, do not hang up the phone. If you call by accident, stay on the line until you can tell the call taker that there is no emergency, so the call taker doesn't have to waste time calling you back or sending police with lights and sirens to check your address for an emergency.
- Prevent prank calls to 9-1-1. Prank calls not only waste time; they are illegal in most states and endanger public safety. If 9-1-1 lines or call takers are busy with prank calls, someone with a real emergency may not be able to get the help they need. Be sure all members of your household are aware that prank or harassing calls to 9-1-1 will be dealt with by local law enforcement agencies.
April is National 9-1-1 Education Month - Get more info on this topic at NENA.org