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911's Magic Words: Use These Phrases, Get A Faster Response, Police Say

By Patty Wetli | March 25, 2016 8:25am | Updated on March 28, 2016 8:46am
 Using the right words when you call 911 can help prioritize your call, police advised.
Using the right words when you call 911 can help prioritize your call, police advised.
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LINCOLN SQUARE — The words people use when calling 911 can make all the difference between officers arriving in minutes or not at all.

At a recent safety strategies seminar hosted by the North Side Community Justice Center, Kevin Duffin, commander of Area North Detectives, offered tips on how to effectively communicate with emergency operators.

The call-takers, Duffin emphasized, are civilians — not police officers — working off a script on a computer screen.

"The call is prioritized by how much information they put in [the computer]," he said.

Reporter Patty Wetli shares tips for a better response when calling 911.

Though some questions may appear redundant or irrelevant, "They have to ask those questions before the next screen will flip over," Duffin explained.

For starters, Duffin suggests to convey a sense of urgency, use terms like reporting an incident "in progress" or "occurring right now."

As operators work through their script, one follow-up question they might ask: "Does the offender have a weapon?"

Don't automatically respond "No" if a weapon isn't visible, Duffin said.

Say "I'm not sure" or "he might," the commander said, otherwise the dispatch priority immediately drops.

(On the other hand, never say a suspect has a weapon if you didn't see one — you could subject yourself to arrest.)

Other words to avoid are nondescript phrases like "loitering" or "hanging out."

When asked "What makes this guy suspicious?" don't be afraid to be specific about what the bad guy appears to be doing: "trespassing," "casing homes to burglarize," "standing on the corner waiting to make a drug deal," "looking for a victim to rob," etc.

"Nobody knows your neighborhood better than you" — who belongs and who doesn't, Duffin said.

A tip sheet provided by the justice center also noted that clothing descriptions are key, particularly if the suspect is on the move.

And if asked whether you intend to sign a complaint, a "yes" will bump up the priority.

Knowing when to go beyond calling 911 is equally important.

Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th), also in attendance at the seminar, said that for ongoing issues — a restaurant illegally operating as a nightclub, for example — residents should pay a visit to their alderman's office, bring up the problem at a CAPS meeting or visit the police station in person.

"There is system to this madness and you can make this system work for you," O'Connor said.

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