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From The Chair: 2B or Not 2B - That Is a Question?

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-01-21
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When the great bard Shakespeare had Lord Polonius remark, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't," little did he know that he was describing the world of the modern PSAP.  Now nearly 420 years later, From the Chair takes a whimsical and somewhat satirical look at the "madness" of how the public does and will communicate with the 9-1-1 center. 

Let’s face it, Shakespeare may well have been a genius, but you could have fooled me. Just look at Hamlet's famous muse, “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”  First, let’s not side-step the obvious here – a question in the English language is denoted by a question mark at the end of the sentence, not a period.  I learned that in first grade, or was it second?  I’m guessing that had 9-1-1 been available in William’s day he’d have been one of those real ding-dongs that emergency telecommunicators have to deal with almost every day.  Can you imagine taking an emergency call from William Shakespeare?   But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? 

“This is 9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

“You say you’re bleeding, sir?  Where are you bleeding?  Are you requesting an ambulance?”

“If you poison us, do we not die?”

“You say you’ve been poisoned?  I’m sending the ambulance now.  Please stay on the line and I’ll give you medical instructions until the ambulance arrives.”

“Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”  Click!

So much for Billy Shake-and-bake in modern times; I can just see him fiddling with a smart phone for the first time, mumbling to himself, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

It isn’t hard for those working in emergency communications to become weary with the public they serve, and jaundiced from the sheer stupidity that some people exhibit every single day.  I’m willing to bet there isn’t an experienced dispatcher in the country that doesn’t have their own top ten list of idiocies they’ve encountered during their tenure.  I have my own list, but I don’t think I’d better share it for fear that it would be censored by my editor and publisher. I’d be sued by those I mention if they were to discover that I’d disclosed the truth about them to my readers, or at minimum, offend some of you with the language that was involved.  But then you’ve probably heard it all before. Regardless, I’ll leave the linguistic transgressions to the creatures who make those calls, and spare you from it.

Early in my career as a dispatcher I received a call from a guy who claimed he was new in town and asked the name of the Catholic Church.  I advised him that it was called Saint Patricks and I gave him the address.  He then asked me what time they held eight o’clock mass.  Being a card-carrying smartass, I instinctively replied, “Nine thirty,” having no idea whatsoever what time mass was held.  Whether or not he made it to church on time is unknown to me.  But the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the dumber that question has become to me.  It’s not just that he fully expected a dispatcher to know the schedule of a particular church's services, but it’s the senselessness with which he posed his query.  And yet, that’s the way the public frames questions to dispatchers all the time.

“Can I take this road to Boston?” they ask, to which you reply – in your mind, of course - “You can take it there if you’ve a mind to, but Boston has plenty of roads of their own.”  Such lines are right out of an old Bert and I routine: “Lived here all your life?” asks one guy, “Not yet,” replies the other.

In olden days when basic 9-1-1 technology was first being introduced to my communication center, we served one town that had a private local telephone company.  That outfit still used electro-mechanical switching equipment; the kind that Ma Bell dumped back in the late ‘60s.  One of the town officials owned the phone company, and he decided it would be a good idea to use the former police, fire and ambulance business lines as the 9-1-1 trunk lines.  His hypothesis, aside from saving his company money and inconvenience, was that if people forgot in an emergency to dial 9-1-1 and instead dialed the former seven-digit number, they’d still get through to emergency dispatch.  Makes sense, right?  It does until you hear the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say.

In that same community the auditorium of the town hall was leased by a man who had converted it into a movie theater affectionately called “The Town Hall Theater.”  He showed first-run films just like they do at the multiplex, but his seats were more comfortable being made from old plush velvet, the screen was wide and crystal clear, the projection optics were the finest, and the sound system made you believe you were wherever the filmmaker wanted you to be.  There was a tiny marquis that hung over the entrance to the theater; an entrance that was shared in those days with the police department.  Have you figured out the problem yet?

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

“Can you tell me what movie is playing tonight?”

It literally took years for people to stop dialing the old police station number to find out what movie was showing.  To add insult to injury, the phone company assigned the police department a new seven-digit number, the last four digits of which were 6-9-1-1.

People have the strangest ideas as to what constitutes the true purpose of 9-1-1.  Some call to find out the correct time.  Others call on snowy days to find out if school is delayed or canceled.  One woman called to tell me that her lobsters died.  Her lobsters died!  She had apparently been grocery shopping and had purchased the little critters for a special dinner that evening.  Before she could murder the poor things in a vat of boiling water, they expired from natural causes right there on the kitchen counter.  I tried to point out that lobsters are sea creatures and, like most sea creatures, live mostly under the sea.  She wasn’t buying my explanation.  She wanted the time of her call noted on the record for the law suit she was going file against that grocer who sold her the defective crustaceans.  I assured her that the time would be duly noted in order for me to dispatch a police officer to investigate why she had dialed 9-1-1 without having a bonafide emergency.

Soon NG9-1-1 will be upon us.  Not only will they be calling us with their hysteria and lunacies, they’ll be emailing us, faxing us, texting us, and tweeting us.  At one time in this country the only way to summon help was to yell at the top of your lungs and hope someone heard you.  Then came the telegraph; the basis for the Gamewell fire alarm system that is still in service after one-hundred and sixty years.  If you had a fire, all you had to do was run down to the corner and pull the handle on the little red Gamewell box mounted on a utility pole, and in short order the fire department showed up.  Twenty-four years later the telephone debuted, and people began phoning their emergencies to a central location.  Somewhere along the way, variations on the Gamewell theme took their rightful place in the communication center, and alarm monitoring got folded into the dispatcher’s job.

Enter: video! (Wow!  This Shakespeare thing can really be habit-forming).  I realize that not every center is equipped with eyes and ears that look and listen beyond the insulated walls where dispatchers dwell.  But enough centers have been so outfitted in recent years that many calls-for-service (CFS) are the result of something going down right in front of a camera (it is estimated that there are at least 3,000 surveillance cameras in New York City's borough of Manhattan).  The more cameras that are being monitored, the more likely there will be an increase in the CFSs.  The disadvantage to monitoring multiple video links is obvious: more responsibility being heaped onto the dispatcher.  The advantage: the dispatcher gets to watch first-run live-action dramas that unfold right before their eyes, and half the time the perpetrators don’t even know they’re on Candid Camera. 

But most calls still come in via non-video sources.  Call me old fashion, but even on those rare occasions when I text-message someone, I still use complete sentences with proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.  I have yet to understand, let alone master, the many shortcuts associated with a Twitter account.  Being restricted to a hundred and forty characters, including spaces, has a tendency to greatly restrict creative expression.  Imagine Bill Shakespeare being so constrained.  Ben Franklin may have been one to embrace every new invention that came along, but I feel confident in saying that Billy S. wouldn’t have been fond of Twitter.  Texting and tweeting may be the way the current generation wants to communicate, but it means we’re all going to have to learn a whole new language in order to grasp what they’re trying to say.

L8- going 2 doc   Need bamlance           RU coming

No punctuation, spelling right out of kindergarten, and single letters and numerals as a substitute for words is what the language of William Shakespeare is being reduced to.  Shakespeare may have taken a certain dramatic license with the language in order to convey emotion and thought, but he certainly didn’t reduced it to a collection of idiotic idioms replete with a cast of &pecial ¢haracters, number5 and cutesy symbols :-)  As for hash tags; don’t even get me started!

In a study quoted in USA Today from the Journal of the Royal Society Interface,  Matjaz Perc of Slovenia's University of Maribor notes that the English language evolved less during the 20th Century than it did during any of the four previous centuries.1  Five-word phrases like, “I have the honour to …” and “Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty,” have given way to “on the other side of …” and “on the part of the.”  This came as a real surprise to me.  I assumed, “at that point in time …” would have made the 20th Century list, along with, “Sock it to me, baby!”  I’m hopeful that, “9-1-1, what is your emergency?” will find its rightful place on the list for the 21st Century.  But then I suppose Mr. Perc focuses more upon the vernacular of the public as opposed to the get-to-the-point verbiage of dedicated emergency telecommunicators.

It’s clear that society is evolving all the time, just as the methods employed for communicating have rapidly evolved since the first Gutenberg Bible came off the presses.  Shakespeare’s way of turning a phrase had great impact when written, and the underlying themes still resonate today.  Maybe he was a genius after all.  But this “Comedy of Errors” that we call modern life needs to establish some baseline within our language for what constitutes actual communication.  We’ve abbreviated the number of digits one must dial to report an emergency and dedicated an entire industry to it.  Must we also abbreviate the number of characters that constitute an emergency call for help?  If we must, maybe we should just create a catalog of four digit numbers and assign each type of emergency a unique number.  That way the bloggers, the tweeters, and the texters will only have to press five whole keys to convey their problem.  Ah, but that would mean they’d have to look up the code in the catalog to make sure they were sending the right one.  A single digit off one way or the other could literally spell the difference between requesting emergency childbirth assistance and needing an emergency appendectomy.

For those of us seated in The Chair, we’ll go on deciphering the nonsense that the public continually foists upon us, and we’ll grin and bear it and somehow embrace the new technologies, protocols, and procedures as they evolve.  In time, tweeting, texting, faxing and the like will become commonplace.  Moreover, ten or twenty years down the road we’ll come to realize that Shakespeare was probably right; it really was “Much Ado About Nothing.”


Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”  Paul’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.

"From the Chair" was conceived and developed for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit


1: Perc, Matjaz. "Evolution of the Most Common English Words and Phrases over the Centuries." J. R. Soc. Interface. 9.77 (2012): 3323-3328. Available online as a PDF download here.





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