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Guidelines for Calling 911

911 is for emergencies only. 911 Dispatchers answer both 911 calls as well as general or business calls made to the Cambridge Police and Cambridge Fire business numbers (617-349-3300 for Police and 617-349-4900 for Fire) as well as other public safety non-911 numbers. Reserving 911 for emergencies enables 911 dispatchers to easily recognize and give highest priority to emergency callers while still being able to receive and promptly answer calls for service or non-emergency calls. TTY is available 24/7 by dialing 9-1-1 or calling 617-499-9924.

Here are examples of emergencies:

  • Life Threatening Situations
  • Fires
  • Motor Vehicle Accidents with injuries or that cause major traffic and street obstructions
  • Injuries requiring emergency medical attention
  • Hazardous chemical spills
  • Fire, smoke or carbon monoxide detectors sounding
  • Burglar alarms
  • Sparking electrical hazards
  • Smoke in a building
  • Any other potentially life-threatening EMERGENCY
If for some reason you do not feel comfortable calling 9-1-1, you may call 617-499-9924. This line is able to handle both voice and TTY calls.


Tips and FAQs

Abandoned Call Procedures

When a person dials 911 and hangs up either before the line is answered or before the 911 operator is able to determine the nature of the call, information is displayed on an Automatic Location Identifier screen. The information displayed is the name, address,  phone number, and any disability indicators of the telephone subscriber. This information is displayed on all calls to 911, even if the person has caller-id blocking. 

The 911 Operator will attempt to call back the phone number and determine the nature of the problem. If the operator is unable to make contact with a person on the phone or feels that there is a problem then a police unit will be dispatched to investigate the hang-up call.

Accidental 911 Calls

A large number of 911 calls are accidental calls, where the caller had no intention of dialing 911 and may not even realize that he has done so. These calls fall under one of three categories: human error, equipment malfunction and the strange.

Human error accounts for a large percentage of accidental calls. Common sources for these types of calls include:
  • Children playing with a phone and not understanding that they are dialing 911
  • Children dialing a familiar number without any malicious intent
  • Prank calls meant to annoy and harass operators 
  • Calls made for non-emergency reasons (what time does the mall open?)
  • Calls made by persons with psychiatric problems or while they are under the influence of alcohol or narcotics

Other common problems include:

  • calls made from inside a business where the caller must dial "9" to get an outside line;
  • dialers who accidentally press an extra number; 
  • speed-dialers who miss a number; 
  • international callers who misdial country codes or forget to dial the international prefix, and auto-dial systems on wireless and memory phones where 911 has been programmed in as a short-cut key . 
Equipment malfunctions occasionally lead to misdialed 911 calls. Sometimes during a rain storm water enters a phone line through a hole in insulation (rodents and animals chew holes through it) and creates static in the line. This static can cause an event similar to a short circuit that results in a dial to 911. Wireless home phones are also popular 911 callers.

To help prevent accidental calls, do not program your phones with a short-cut key or auto-dialer to 911. Teach children that they should only call 911 in an emergency.

Questions We Ask You

If you've ever called 9-1-1 you may wonder why the call taker seems insistent upon asking you a series of questions instead of dispatching help. Rest assured, they are doing both! Cambridge uses a specialized system (Computer Aided Dispatch or CAD) that allows the call taker to instantly transfer information electronically and automatically to the dispatchers. You don't hear them telling someone where to go, because there is nothing to be heard! This computer system greatly increases response time and accuracy and is considered the critical computer system in the Police, Fire, and Emergency Communication Department.

So why answer all those questions? It helps us to provide the appropriate equipment and manpower response to your specific emergency and it helps us to immediately begin giving the proper life saving instructions - if they are required. "He's bleeding badly" does not mean the same thing to every person. To one person this may mean that they have severed a major artery and to another person this may indicate a supercial cut that is bleeding but that may or may not need stitches.

In April of 1998 Emergency Communications began a special program to improve response to emergency medical calls. Under the leadership of Dispatcher Ron Richard, the ECD had previously adopted the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) protocol for handling and classifying EMS calls. Every ECD staff member was certified in MPDS (a rigorous 3-day course) and a set of MPDS cards was obtained and placed at each position that could take a 911 or other emergency call. In April, all dispatchers began to use the cards, not just for those calls that needed pre-arrival instructions (e.g., baby choking, person needing CPR instructions, etc.) but for all EMS calls. The cards help dispatchers ask a carefully selected but brief set of questions which help insure that the dispatcher understands the exact nature of the medical emergency and better organizes the correct response. In 2006, the cards were replaced by a computerized version of the cards which offered greater functionality; for example a callers answers to their specific questions are captured, organized and presented on the laptops of many responder vehicles as they are enroute to the emergency.

Over 240 different codes match caller needs to a highly tailored set of responses. For example, previously the classification "BLEEDING/HEMORRHAGE" was used for all calls where persons were bleeding. Under the EMD system there are seven different types of such calls from a cut on the finger that only needs an ambulance all the way up to a major arterial bleeding that gets a full tiered response of the closest Engine company (to arrive fast and start the workup), the closest Fire Squad ALS paramedic unit (to provide advanced life support/paramedic level functions), to a transporting contract ALS unit from Professional Ambulance (to assist in all ALS functions as well as in transport to and entry into the hospital ER).

More finely detailed classifications help get the right equipment to the right call, avoid unnecessary over-response, better prepare en-route responders, and help dispatchers guide the pre-arrival actions of persons helping the patient. The EMD program is a collaborative effort among the Fire Department and its highly respected Squad and Rescue service, the city's contract ambulance and ALS company (Professional Ambulance), the Police Department, and the ECD.

A Steering Committee sets policies, oversees the classifications, and deals with general EMS issues. Supervisors use call review, call scoring, and feedback sheets to insure quality control. In addition, there is a pay incentive and re-certification program to promote and insure EMD skills development by dispatcher.

Why is DLS good? 

Dispatch Life Support is the body of information and methods used by EMDs to help callers deal with a wide range of patient and scene circumstances. The scripted protocols enabling this crucial exchange of information lead the EMD through a verifiable, comprehensive process that eliminates the chance of inadvertent omissions of vital information. By giving instructions over the phone the dispatcher is able to give aid to the victim through the caller or bystander until medical help arrives.

Silent Calls

If you need to call 9-1-1 and you are unable to speak for reasons such as physical disability, domestic violence, home invasion, no access to a TTY or a language barrier, the following these simple instructions using a touch-tone telephone once you have dialed 9-1-1:

  • If you need the police, press (1)
  • If you need Fire, press (2)
  • If you need ambulance, press (3)
  • If a dispatcher asks a question, press (4) for YES or press (5) for NO.

The 9-1-1 operator will then send the appropriate responding agencies.

Remember: the Silent Call Procedure can only be used when calling 911.

TTY 9-1-1 Calls

All call takers at the Cambridge Emergency Communications Center are trained to use a TTY in the event of a 911 silent call. A TTY is much like an instant messenger program in which the caller and dispatcher can communicate using a keyboard. Hearing impaired persons reporting emergencies should dial 9-1-1 or (617) 499-9924.

The Massachusetts State 911 Department performs test TTY calls every month.

Situations when you should not dial 9-1-1

These are some situations when you should not dial 9-1-1:

  • Finding a towed vehicle (call 617-349-3300) or use the online tool
  • Asking directions in the city (if you must): call 617-349-3300 but please be patient as 911 dispatchers are often very busy.
  • Inquiring about school openings or closings (call 617-349-6513)
  • Reporting a blocked driveway or obstructed hydrant (call 617-349-3300)
  • Questions about snow emergencies or parking bans (call 617-349-4700 or 617-349-4800)
  • Reporting a noise complaint (call 617-349-3300)
  • Questions about traffic tickets (call 617-349-4700 - the Traffic department)
  • Seeking information from a police or fire office (check the phone book for specific numbers, call 349-3300 - Police switchboard or 349-4900 Fire switchboard if uncertain)
  • Asking about a late school bus (call both the Eastern Bus company at 617-628-6868 and the city’s - School bus office at 617-349-6862; each can radio drivers)
  • Reporting rust in the water or dirty water (call the Water Dept. at 617-349-4770)
  • Reporting garbage problems (call DPW at 617-349-4800)
  • Contacting a police officer at the police front desk (call 617-349-3301)
  • Reporting street lights out (call city’s Electrical Dept. at 617-349-4925)
  • No heat problem (call Inspectional Services at 617-349-6100)
  • Needing domestic violence help (non-emergency to Camb. Police unit at 617-349-3370 days; Transition House info. at 617-661-7203 24 hrs.)
  • Drug tip hot line (call confidentially to Police Vice unit at 617-349-3359)
  • Reporting problems with a building’s structure, etc. (Inspect. Dept. @ 617-349-6100)
  • Public health problem (call Inspect Dept. at 617-349-6100 or Hospital at 617-665-1000)
  • Checking on an animal control issue (call the Animal Control officer at 617-349-4376)
  • All other NON-EMERGENCY situations

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