Field trip: 9-1-1 Call Center

photo cred: Chicago Tribune

what: 9-1-1 Call Center Tour
where: Norcomm Public Safety Commission, Franklin Park, IL
why: Sisters in Crime meeting, Chicagoland

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might know I take the occasional field trip with my fellow Sisters in Crime in the Chicagoland area. I’ve learned about crime scene clean-up; the value of maggots and more, from a coroner’s perspective; what it’s like to be a Chicago cop; and even how to poison yourself using over-the-counter drugs. Useful and fun informationat least for a mystery writer.

Today, we headed to the Norcomm center near O’Hare airport to get a tour of a 9-1-1 call center facility. Most people know how to dial emergency services or police. But here are a few things you may not have known.

Note: Because we weren’t allowed to take photos (to protect the privacy of potential callers, etc.), I’ll insert appropriate replacement pictures.

Do people still make 9-1-1 prank calls?

When I was a kid, the bane of an emergency dispatcher used to be prank callers. Now there’s a new prank caller in town, and it’s your butt.

Butt dialing (accidental key presses on your smartphone while it’s in your pocket or bag) is the number one source of non-emergency calls to most call centers.  On most phones, you can dial 9-1-1 without having to unlock the screen.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 8.54.36 PM
“But seriously, that five-alarm chili you ate last night was no joke.”

You might also be happy to learn that this particular call center has 18 “trunks” or phone pick-ups. So in this area, unless 18 butts are aligned in dialing, you’re going to be okay. Probably.

What are the most frequent types of calls?

As we head into summer and road trip season, you should know that the most frequent type of caller has to do with accidents.

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“We’re so pleased you’re severely injured.”

So enjoy your outings with your loved ones, especially those family reunions because domestic disturbance/violence calls rank second most frequent.

How long do they keep audio/video recordings?

Most call centers keep their recordings for 30-60 days. This center keeps theirs for 120 days.

Waitaminute, you ask, what recordings?

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 9.17.39 PM
“They’re watching us, man.”

Scroll back up for a sec. In that first photo (the real one), the monitor that the dispatcher’s head is blocking is actually a window into your world. They can actually see many major intersections. And, depending on your area, they can watch illicit drug deals, wedgie extraction, nose-picking, and really crummy U-turns. And it stays on their computer servers for 120 days.

Also, thanks in part to the Freedom of Information Act here in the U.S., anyone can request those recordings. Just a fun bit of trivia, in case you were planning a dirty deed. Or even writing about one.

What does the future of dispatch hold?

A couple of interesting things:

  • 9-1-1 Texting: In some areas, you may be able to text emergency services if you’re in a situation in which you can’t call. No, not the movie theater. Although making a phone call in the theater might actually cause violence.
  • Smart 9-1-1: Other locations are using this system, in which you can volunteer information about yourself, like how many people live at your house, your pets, your medical conditions, etc. These details are then connected to your home and cell phone numbers, so if you need to call for help, dispatchers have access to your file.

    Or, of course, highly skilled hackers.

Do you want to be a dispatcher?

While I’m a fairly decent multi-tasker, these people are masters. You saw that first picture, right? Those screens aren’t just for show, like some crappy Hollywood movie. As we stood there watching and listening to all the beeps and blips, I was thankful I wasn’t sitting in the lumbar-support chair in the dispatcher’s place.

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“Does the chair come with a bacon dispenser?”


Sisters in Crime is open to anyone who wants to join. The sisters (and misters) are writers, publishers, and fans of mysteries and crime fiction. Look for your local chapter, if you’re interested.

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