Calling 911 in a Domestic Violence Situation: What You May not Know.

***The following is NOT official legal or safety information. It is concerned advice from a friend and neighbor who you haven’t technically met yet. If you are in danger, please see the link at the end of the post to reach out for help.***

You may have a dear friend who is in a bad situation. In fact, that’s sugar-coating it. She may be in an emotionally abusive relationship. Or she’s trying to get out, but it’s just not always that easy. Finances have to be arranged, alternative living situations need to be found, school districts need to be considered. She MAY have been trying to leave for a while. Trouble is, “when I’m able to…” may turn into her needing help from 911 and law enforcement to get out RIGHT NOW.

In the past…

You may have heard this inspirational story: a woman is being abused, but somehow convinces her abuser to allow her to order a pizza over the phone. Instead of calling for a pizza, she calls 911. The dispatcher figures out that she’s actually in danger, sends someone to her, and she’s saved by law enforcement at her door.

I have seen a news story just like the above tale as recently as November of 2019. I was honestly shocked that this device is still being used, and a little concerned about the usefulness of this particular type of call.

I spoke with a former dispatcher for a local municipality who shed some light on this well-known trope. Ordering a pizza has been a fairly well-known means to call 911 in the past- and that’s one of the reasons that she said it is now passe. The advantage of doing this was a strong one- it was an opportunity to give the address of the place where you are in danger. But, not only may your abuser be on to this little trick, placing a phone call is no longer the most efficient way to order a pizza. Most pizza chains have apps or text ordering, making a phone call suspicious at best, possibly dangerous for the victim at worst, if the abuser realizes what’s happening and retaliates.

While there is no official “textbook” that dispatchers study from, most 911 operator/dispatching training programs (or at least, the department she worked for) include MONTHS of shadowing with a very experienced dispatcher. This means, even if you get a dispatcher who is on their very first day of taking calls on their own, they have heard months worth of 911 problems and seen the swift solutions applied to solve them. She also pointed out that the first thing any 911 operator does during an emergency call is identify themselves as emergency personnel.

This way, they know that the caller knows who they are calling and why, so anything said by the caller after that introduction will be regarded as emergency communication. However, she insists:

“In a distress call, the most important information is WHERE YOU ARE.”

As soon as you give your location, the dispatcher is able to send law enforcement to you. WHY they are going and WHAT exactly is happening are things that can be established once they are on their way.

If you call from a landline, the dispatcher is able to see your exact location, but if you are calling from a cell phone, it’s much trickier. If a “hang-up” call is received from a mobile number, the dispatchers must first contact a national mobile carrier. After that, the carrier is only able to advise which mobile tower the call is closest to. This decreases the information that they have about the caller exponentially from a “land line call,” and takes a lot of precious, crucial time.

It can help, she said, if you leave the phone on, even if you are not able to identify yourself and speak to the dispatcher directly. The dispatcher will listen intently and glean any and all details that they can. The 911 operator I spoke to once took a call in a domestic violence situation where the caller was not able to speak at all, but, coincidentally, police had been dispatched to the home due to a concerned neighbor’s call. Once there, the dispatcher heard police yelling at the door. This identified the victim and gave documented proof of the abuse taking place since all 911 calls are recorded.

In Jefferson Parish, and the Cities of Kenner, Westwego, and Gretna, you can text to 911 in an emergency. I tried to see if this feature was available in other metro GNO parishes, such as Orleans and St. Tammany, but I was not able to confirm. However, all of the people I talked to and sources I read stressed heavily that text messaging is not the preferred means of communication, for the reason listed above. It’s harder for emergency personnel to find you. Texting or hanging up without speaking should be saved for WORST CASE scenarios.

So, if you are thinking you might need to “order a pizza” to get out of a bad situation, what should you do?

In advance, try to think of a scenario where you are able to give address numbers or your street name. The dispatcher will be well trained and attuned to your needs, but only you know where you are, and the best way to communicate that information.

#1- MAKE A PLAN- But you know that, don’t you? Save some money, if you can; find a friend who can help you, if you can- but also- make a plan to communicate with emergency operators without arousing suspicion. This could make a big difference in your safety, and maybe the safety of your children.

#2- If you need law enforcement, the BEST case scenario is to call and speak with someone. If that is not possible at all, leave the phone on as long as possible and say as much about where you are as you can. Text WITH YOUR LOCATION if necessary.

#3- Keep your head up, momma. This is hard. Millions of women and men have been here before. Take the time you need, but do the BEST thing for you and your family.

So, if your friend, co-worker, cousin, brother, or ever mother ever casually mentions that she’s felt unsafe in their relationship- gently urge them to have a plan for “pizza.”

For help, you can contact: http://www.mccagno.org/who-we-are/

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Jeanne is a proud Westbanker and inordinately blessed wife, full time working parent, and middle child. She and her insanely handsome husband of 15 years have 2 daughters, aged 11 and 2. Her hobbies include cake decorating, reading, devouring movies, and slowly turning into her mother. When they are not patronizing local restaurants, she and her family enjoy driving around to take in the surroundings of their home, from Lafitte to Folsom, and all points in between. Jeanne has contributed her time and skills to a number of organizations, including WRBH Reading for the Blind, and the Jefferson Chorale. She celebrates the seasons in true New Orleans style - Easter champagne brunch, summertime snoball, Saints game day Abita, and Celebration in the Oaks with a flask. 

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