How does SPD’s 911 Call Center work? West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network calls on its leaders

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

We’ve heard it before – yet people appreciate hearing it again:

What happens when you call 911? What can you do to make your call most effective?

The West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network devoted its most recent meeting to the topic – with answers to those questions and many more, as well as other insights.

Special guests from the Seattle Police Department 911 Call Center (WSB file photo at right) were Communications Section Operations Lieutenant Dave Proudfoot, and 911 Center training coordinator Rob Montague.

Lt. Proudfoot acknowledged, “We’re customer-service-oriented but it’s not the same as in the restaurant business.” He said he’s aware that sometimes operators are terse, almost too efficient, and that’s by design:

“I’m always telling them DON’T spend more than two minutes on the phone with someone” – otherwise calls stack up including people with “life-threatening situations are being put on hold.”

Montague has had his job for about six months – but he’s not at all new to the work. “What happens when you call 911? If you call inside the city limits of Seattle, from a land line in the city limits, or a cell tower in the city limits, you get us – regardless of whether you need medics or police assistance. Just a tip – if you need medical attention, tell us right away … (then) we transfer you to the Fire Department, which has its own 911 system. … If you need medics we can quickly determine that and get you over there to get the help you need.”

The police call center is headquartered downtown, at 8th and Virginia.

First person you get when you call is NOT the person you hear if you monitor the scanner: It’s a primary operator. They process the call, whether it’s emergency or non-emergency, and type information into the CAD (computer-assisted dispatch) system. That information in turn is sent to another dispatcher who handles the radio system. Depending on whether it’s an emergency or not, that dispatcher sends resources. Officers can’t refuse to call, because “we are the voice of the chief.”

If you have a non-emergency call – such as, you wanted to report that your car had been broken into, but it happened some time ago and you just wanted to finally make a report – you might then be transferred to non-emergency operators, “secondary call-takers.”

There’s a number for calling Seattle 911 from outside city limits – 206-583-2111. And there’s the more-widely known non-emergency number which gets you to a phone tree, 206-625-5011. The primary and secondary operators are “literally sitting next to each other,” said Montague.

Calls to both numbers, emergency or non-emergency, are both recorded statistically, and officers on the street “have no way of knowing how that call came in – just that it got to me,” explained Community Police Team Officer Jon Kiehn, providing the patrol perspective.

So when do you call 911?

The only reason there’s a non-emergency line is to “relieve the 911 load … and we can put you on hold,” otherwise, “you’re talking to the same people, in the same room, and it gets processed the same way.”


“Call 911 any time you think something needs expedited police attention,” said Montague. “That’s intentionally vague – but we rely on what you think. We’re asking your opinion when you call. We want to know what you think, what you see.”

Don’t overthink “is it an emergency now?”, though. He sidetracked to a story of someone who had been attacked and tied up and called the non-emergency line because the attackers were gone. “Uh – that’s a 911 call,” he said.

If you call and ask for help, he added, your call will be prioritized:

Precedence 1 – “the most serious emergencies, burglaries in progress (where there’s a chance to catch the culprit), shootings, stabbings, major assaults, domestic violence-related even if it’s been over for an hour (those tend to have a higher chance of going bad very quickly)” Also in this category: If you call 911 and hang up – because there’s no way of knowing what’s happening and it could be something very bad.

Precedence 2 – “expedited response” – “where nobody’s life is in danger but you still have a chance to catch the guy who did it, fistfights, things that happened not now but not long ago, hit and runs …”

Precedence 3 – suspicious but might not be a crime, they just want us to look into it – “doesn’t mean your call’s not important, but we have to categorize it that way it would be stupid to dispatch an officer to a car prowl that happened two days ago instead of a shooting (happening now)” – the categorization also helps them know when an officer can be diverted, even while responding to your call – “We have to deal with a finite number of officers; West Seattle generally doesn’t have a a large number of officers, so it can be difficult … If there’s a (major incident) it could take up almost every officer in the precinct,” so nothing else can be handled in the meantime. They might be able to pull officers from the South Precinct, but that’s seldom done.

What if you get the feeling when you are talking to a dispatcher that maybe you shouldn’t have called?

Montague tried to explain that by explaining what happens while calls are taken. He first asked if anyone had ever called to report something “suspicious,” and questioned a woman who volunteered that she had done so, because of someone she had noticed whose behavior had raised suspicion.

“If I had been your call-taker, one of the things I would have asked you is, ‘what do you THINK he’s doing?'” Montague said, noting that the process of calling 911 is like “a giant game of telephone,” with everything being filtered by someone else in turn, on down the line. “That’s why we ask a bunch of questions, even things that might not seem very relevant,” so officers can be told what might be going on.

“If we ask you a question you don’t know the answer to – we’re not implying you SHOULD know the answer – tell us you don’t, and we’ll stop that line of questioning, it tells us what information we CAN’T gather,” he added. But, he said, they will ask a whole lot of questions about specific locations, directions someone’s going in, whether you saw or think you saw a weapon, because they need to be able to give officers as much information as possible when sending them into the situation.

(If you have a concern with the way a call goes, you can ask that a supervisor contact you, by the way, Montague said.)

If you can orient yourself when you’re reporting something – north, south, street, avenue, which way the suspect’s going – all the better. And a description “is really important” – if it’s a car, they’ll ask the color, the year, the make, the model, any accessories, license plate – “license plates are huge,” said Montague – “descriptions and directions are huge.”

They need to stay on the line with you if you are following someone – which they would prefer you not do.

But in an “in-progress or just-occurred situation,” precedence 2 or 1, “the call-taker who just received that call will transfer it to a chief dispatcher, who may ask some additional questions, and will get on the radio channel where this is happening and broadcast it -” which means it gets out even faster than it would have if it was being typed up and sent over. If you hear more voices, the officers who are heading that way are asking more questions.

If you are calling from a cell phone, you MUST be able to tell them where you are – they don’t know it automatically – especially not if you’re on a 2nd (or above) floor. There are a variety of other reasons that police don’t know where you are, either.

They will ask:
-Race? (black, white, Asian, Hispanic) – that “generally sets a set of characteristic” – but if you don’t know, describe the skin color, the hair color, and be sure to say “I don’t know” if you really don’t
-Clothing. “Here’s what we want to know about clothing – top to bottom, outside to inside.”
-What color hair?
-Jacket? What color shirt under the jacket?
-If we get that far, shoes.

He also talked about how dispatchers are ranked and supervised – there’s always somebody in the middle of the room listening to all the radio traffic. And there’s a lot going on that you’re not hearing – people are being dispatched even while the person you’re on the phone with is continuing to ask you for information.

And the WSBWCN attendees heard about the extensive/intensive training for 911 center workers – starting with six weeks of classroom training, and then many weeks of working with a trainer at their side, taking non-emergency calls at first, eventually moving on to emergency calls. And it’s at least two years before you can work on the radio. Meantime, the day is broken into three shifts, 11 pm-7 am, 7 am-3 pm, 3 pm-11 pm; the latter is the shift with the most staff on hand, 27 people, with 24 during day shift and 18 on graveyard shift, not including supervisors and chief dispatchers.

Speaking of whom – chief dispatchers are working with six screens in front of them, and everyone works with multiple screens, since they have so much to deal with: “Our keyboards SMOKE,” Montague said proudly.

Before the discussion concluded, the topic of perceived calltaker rudeness came back up. The calltakers, it was pointed out, have to work in almost inhuman conditions, dealing with a new emergency every two minutes, never finding out how the calls ended up; all they know, in an emergency situation, is that someone on the other side of the phone might die if they don’t get help quickly, and if you’re not answering their questions the way they need you to, something terrible could happen. “Calling 911 is NOT a conversation,” Officer Kiehn noted. The speakers urged would-be callers to consider what the calltakers have been going through during their shift.

Lt. Proudfoot added that all calls are recorded, so, “if you ever have a concern or a question, call (and ask) – people are NOT going to be fired for it” – if someone needs feedback or more training, they’ll work on it.

WSBWCN THIS SUMMER: Look for the West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network at the Morgan Junction Community Festival on June 22nd, West Seattle Summer Fest July 12-14, the West Seattle Grand Parade on July 20th, National Night Out (Against Crime) on August 6th (register now!), and Delridge Day on August 17th. Keep track of the groups’ other happenings, as well as announcements and alerts, via its webpage at

6 Replies to "How does SPD's 911 Call Center work? West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network calls on its leaders"

  • miws June 9, 2013 (4:09 pm)

    Thank you for an informative article.


    In regards to the Call Taker “terseness”, one thing to remember besides the reason given, is that Callers are often distressed when calling in an emergency, especially a life-threatening one, or one that the Caller perceives to be life-threatening, and are in a state of panic.


    By the Call Taker “taking charge” of the situation, and getting the Caller to calm down and focus, Dispatch is better able to send the appropriate Units, and do so more expeditiously.



  • Mike June 10, 2013 (9:26 am)

    about a week after the theft of wire from Delridge playfield and Chief Sealth I was running along the Harbor ave where it borders the Port of Seattle. Off to the side of one of the gravel paths was a Drunk or drugged dude passed out who had a HUGE duffle bag full of wire. All around him was the casing that had been stripped from some the wire, I have no idea where the wire came from, but I doubt the dude was an electrician. i called 911 asking for police to check this out. I operator was extremely rude to the point of being nasty. She called for a fire reponse “Because dude was passed out” When she got Fire dispach on the phone I talked over 911 explaining, Fire told her to send police……i have no idea if the Police ever came, as I continued on my way. “To serve and protect”…..right

  • Eric June 10, 2013 (11:41 am)

    Mike, did you ever consider the fact that the reason the call was transferred to fire was because the primary call was for the unconscious person not for the wire. The police call taker generally can stay on the phone and get the needed info as you are talking to fire. you “Talking over 911” instead of following directions was 1) inappropriate and 2) delayed the response to the call.

  • Mike June 10, 2013 (11:07 pm)

    Ya Eric the Fire Dept. loves to respond to the drunk thiefs, which is why they said to send the police.

  • dispatcher June 13, 2013 (12:36 am)

    Dispatchers ask questions. So we expect the caller to answer them. 99% of the time caller WILL NOT ANSWER THE QUESTIONS. They Don’t listen and just continue to repeat and blab on and on about things that are no way important to the call. We ask the questions cause that is the info we need. Yes we get short, we get terse, we can get rude. But if callers would just shut up for 2 seconds and listen we could get the needed info and dispatch quickly and catch criminals and save lives. A 30 second call will take 3 minutes because we have to drag info out of callers. #1 know where you are, It not TV we can’t instantly GPS where you are. #2 calm down #3 shut up and listen then answer only what was asked. Thank you

  • Arnika June 23, 2013 (12:17 pm)

    “They need to stay on the line with you if you are following someone – which they would prefer you not do.”

    Lol, I am amused by these words.

    In this case, I would follow someone: so they stay on the line with me!

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