Knowing whether or not to call 9-1-1

Recognizing an emergency versus non-emergency and how to get help

Imagine this— it is 11 o’clock at night and you’re at home watching television. You see lights from a vehicle driving past your home. You can hear that the vehicle is slowing down and you look out the window to see the lights have been turned off, but the vehicle is still slowly proceeding through your neighborhood. What would you do?

Deciding whether or not to call 9-1-1 can send some people into cold sweats. Is this a true emergency? Is my call going to be “that” annoying call that is so often heard about? There certainly isn’t a comprehensive list of when to call 9-1-1 and when to call a non-emergency number, but there are guidelines that can hopefully help.

Always call 9-1-1 if there is immediate assistance needed or, in other words, the situation is “in progress.” For instance, a medical emergency should always result in a call to 9-1-1. The call taker is trained to assist with instructions over the phone until help arrives. You should certainly call 9-1-1 if you see or are the victim of a burglary in progress. Maybe you see someone driving erratic that could be suffering a medical emergency or the driver could be impaired. Call 9-1-1!

Or, if you see someone hurting another person or you heard something sounding like a gunshot. All of these scenarios should be reported to 9-1-1 immediately. If in doubt, call 9-1-1 and let the call taker make the determination. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Never call 9-1-1 for directions or information on an address or phone number. If your pet is sick, don’t call 9-1-1. If you come home from being away and find your home has been vandalized or burglarized, it is best to call the non-emergency number. When it is obvious there is no suspect still on your property, the non-emergency number is the better choice.

Prank calls to 9-1-1 are not only a waste of time, but also could result in a true emergency not getting the timely response needed due to the resources not being available. Anyone who makes prank calls to 9-1-1 can be criminally charged with a misdemeanor.

When you have an emergency and call 9-1-1, try your best to stay calm and give information as accurately as possible. The call taker will be relaying the messages to emergency personnel not only via radio, but also by computer. Even though you may think you are being asked a lot of unnecessary questions, they are important to the call. All of this information is immediately being relayed by computer to the personnel on the road. Don’t think the questions are delaying the response— they are not. Things are happening simultaneously in order to get the responders to your location as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Oh, remember that car driving down your street at night with the lights off? You might want to call 9-1-1 for this. This is suspicious behavior and the occupants could very well be scoping out a home to break in to. Law enforcement would rather check it out and have it be nothing as opposed to someone becoming a victim of a crime.

story by GARY HESTER, Deputy County Manager of Public Safety for Polk County

About the author: Gary Hester is a lifelong resident of Polk County who began his career in 1979 at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, progressing through the ranks to become the Chief of Staff— second in command to Sheriff Grady Judd. Gary retired from the Sheriff’s Office in August of 2010 to accept an appointment as the Winter Haven Police Chief, where he served until September 2014 when he accepted the position of Deputy County Manager for Polk County. He has dedicated his life and leadership to serving the citizens of Polk County for more than 35 years in law enforcement. Gary is married to Sandra, his wife of 34 years. He has two wonderful grown children and a precious granddaughter.

Gary also serves on the advisory board of Polk Vision, which began the Building a Healthier Polk Initiative. For more information on the Building a Healthier Polk initiative, visit You can also find them on Twitter at @HealthierPolk and on Facebook.

Accessibility Toolbar