Emergencies in Montgomery: Dialing 911

The ability of the government to respond to an emergency is one of the most important reasons we pay taxes. But theoretical talk about the “common good” can quickly fade away when there’s a emergency threatening the security of your loved ones or those around you. In those kinds of crises, you want to summon help as quickly as possible, hopefully by talking to someone with a cool head and a command of all the facts.

Major Chandler

Major Chandler

That’s why Montgomery is so fortunate to have a professional team of experts coordinating the city’s emergency medical, police and fire responders. When our community has urgent needs — and they certainly do happen, whether we’re talking about crime, car wrecks or anything else — the City of Montgomery’s Emergency Communications Department is ready to help.

A lot of people don’t realize that the team of folks answering 911 calls are actually a part of their own municipal department. The calls don’t go to dispatchers from the police or fire departments but, rather, are coordinated by a unique team of highly-trained operators that can walk the callers (who are often understandably in a state of panic) through the steps needed to deploy an appropriate response.

We learned all this when Major M.D. Chandler, Operations Manager at Emergency Communications, came and spoke to our neighborhood association. She gave us some history of the department, which was made its own branch of the city government about a decade ago.

“Before, if you didn’t like how 911 handled your call, you talked to the police chief,” she said.

The department is growing, expecting to hire about 18 people this year. Additionally, the department is something unique to the City of Montgomery, offering something that we ought to take pride in. We live in the only city in the state of Alabama in which the 911 operators are specially trained at a unique training academy. That means a lot more than simply keeping a caller calm. Folks answering the phone must be conversant in all of the various lingo and codes used by the police and fire departments, as well as the ambulance companies.

Working at Emergency Communications also requires the ability to handle a large call volume. Even on a sleepy mid-week evening, Chandler said, the call offices might take 500 calls.

Some people call 911 when they see suspicious characters in their neighborhoods. Others have witnessed automobile collisions. And still others are around when someone is undergoing a medical emergency. Emergency responders have to be ready to provide the correct help to an often-evolving situation, sometimes coordinating multiple types of responses.

Among the most important information shared by Chandler was this valuable information: If you call 911 and happen to get a recording, do not hang up. Call volumes might spike when a huge number of drivers on the Interstate call to report a wreck. Even when fully staffed, that might mean that there aren’t enough operators available to answer every call immediately. A casual 911 caller might get the recording and hang up, unwilling to wait on hold to report an accident that they are sure is being reported by others. Don’t do this! The operators at Emergency Communications are required to call back every caller that hangs up, for pretty obvious reasons. They can’t take the risk that you aren’t one of the folks gasping for air or who have been cornered in some sort of dangerous situation. So they have to call you back — and that takes time away that they could be using to answer other calls. So, if you do happen to get a recording when you call, stay on the line and complete the call.

The other very cool thing revealed by Chandler’s talk: the Emergency Communications office is available for tours. They’re a public agency and they’re glad to show folks how their tax dollars are spent. If you’re interested in a tour, make a reservation on the website.

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind the differences between the city’s 311 phone system and the 911 emergency response system. Got a tree limb down across the road? That’s a 311 call. Storm drain clogged? Same thing. Essentially, anything that will require a city municipal work order merits a 311 call. Then there’s the non-emergency police number. That’s 241-2651, for reporting an accident or something suspicious. Useful to program into your phone. But anything where there’s an emergency situation deserves a call to 911.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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