Lessons from a 911 Call

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Lessons From A 911 Call

I was sitting by the window in a tiny exam room with my wife, waiting for the pediatrician to come check out some irritation in my 9-month-old daughter’s eye. The street below, 6 stories down, was just a standard crawl of cars and pedestrians, sliding past in the sticky heat of post-thunderstorm San Diego. That’s when I saw him.

About a block away and wearing blue scrubs and a black sweatshirt, at first I thought he was a nurse walking a tiny dog. Except something wasn’t right. The dog was really tiny, and he kept kicking it down the sidewalk beside him. I put my glasses back on for a clearer look, and what I saw was a homeless man, one whole side of his clothes stained brown from sleeping in the dirt, carrying a long dead vine in his hand. The leafy end of the vine was dragging on the pavement and he kicked it along with uncoordinated fervor. He had a battered shoe on one foot and just a blacked white gym sock on the other, his pockets bulging with trash.

I felt bad for him, that sad sense of “there but for the grace of God go I” that you feel when you see someone that’s fallen so far in the gutter that you’re not even sure how to help them.

And then he started wandering into traffic. At that point I called 911 to report a man, clearly in some sort of altered state, about to get himself painted onto the roadway.

Halfway through the 911 call, he began to stumble, and then he collapsed, his body racked with convulsions before he hit the sidewalk. He laid there, seizing, for about a minute before other people on the street ran up, also calling 911 and trying to help. A woman in scrubs ran out of a building, pulling on her gloves and kneeling beside him. I described all of this to the operator as concisely as I could, as it happened.

The 911 operator informed me that others on the ground were calling, and cut the line.

Total time between my noticing the man and seeing him fall to the ground was less than 6 minutes. Below is some footage from after the call that gives an idea of my vantage point. (I tried to get a recording of the call itself, but California FOI laws disappointed me).

But even without the recording, there are still some important lessons from this episode that I want to share.

Know your phone and how to best use it in an emergency.

It took me longer than needed to make my 911 call because I entered by password to unlock the phone and then manually go to the dialer. However, I could have just punched the emergency call button and gone straight to the dialer without using the password. If I had practiced for a 911 call more often ahead of time, I would have known to use this feature and saved myself valuable time.

Know the baseline of your surroundings and pay attention to it.

One of the reasons I was able to notice the victim so quickly, and before he had his episode, was by paying attention to my surrounding with an understanding of what baseline normal behavior was. Understanding the baseline of your surroundings is half of the awareness battle, because deviation from baseline is often how we realize something isn’t right. For example, if you know what a regular dog behaves like, no one needs to teach you that a dog with two heads, three legs or foaming at the mouth is outside the baseline. Abnormal attracts attention, but only if you know what ‘normal’ is to contrast it with.

Don’t wait for others to act, take action yourself.

I don’t know if I was the first to call 911 for this guy, but I knew that there was no one else to do it from my vantage point. Likewise, the gentlemen on the street below that called 911 didn’t know I was up there calling, too. One woman, obviously hospital personnel, gloved up and began to assist the victim long before EMS arrived. Soon after, a doctor from the building I was in crossed the street to assist. We each made the choice to act without waiting or hoping that someone else would act for us. If you have the ability and training to act, then make the decision now that you will.

Be calm.

The very first time I ever made a 911 call was back in high school when I saw a dump-truck swallow most of a beige Volvo. I was not very calm when I called and as a result the 911 operator had to ask me to repeat several things and generally calm me down. That experience is one of the reasons I was more useful this time around. The operator already has one problem: the event you’re reporting. Don’t make yourself problem number two.

Give all the details.

The more information you can provide to the 911 operator the better. In particular, provide the “Six W’s:” Where, What, When, Who, Weapons (is anyone involved armed?) and Welfare (is an ambulance needed?) Precise details about exactly what is occurring can help first responders to arrive more rapidly and with a better understanding of what they’ll face when they get there. If the operator asks to you repeat a detail that you already gave, just do it as many times as it takes. The operator is entering information into the system, and they’re human just like you.

See it through.

Stay on the line as long as they need you. And, if you can, stay on the scene to provide information to first responders and law enforcement when they arrive. Obviously, in the case of violence, traffic or other immediate danger and obstacle, it may not be safe for you to stay. But if you can still be useful without endangering yourself, do so.

Until Next Time!

Justin White

PS- There is a great article on When and How to Call 911 over at Art Of Manliness.

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