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911 for Emergency Services

Information on this page answers the following questions:

  • What is 911?
  • When should I call 911?
  • Who answers 911 calls?
  • What happens if I call 911 and I'm not immediately connected with a live 911 call taker?
  • Sometimes when I call 911 from Washington, DC, I get a neighboring jurisdiction. Why is that?
  • What information should I provide?
  • Do I have to leave my name?
  • What if I don't speak English?

What is 911?

911 is the public's lifeline for police, fire, and medical services in the District of Columbia. The 911 number should be used to request services from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (FEMS). A 911 call is toll-free and is accessible through residential, wireless, and pay telephones throughout the District.

Who answers 911 calls?

All calls to 911 are answered by trained universal call-takers at the Office of Unified Communications. Calls that require a fire or emergency medical response are immediately transferred to dispatchers within the call center. For police-related emergencies, the call-taker takes the information and forwards it via computer to police dispatchers, also within the call center. The center's Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system helps with the dispatch of first responders.

When do I call 911 vs. 311?

Call 911 to report an emergency. An emergency is defined as an event that poses immediate, significant threat to life and/or property. Call 911 to:

  • Report a crime in progress where the offender is still on the scene (or has just left the scene)
  • Report a fire, hazardous spill, smoke, or electrical hazards
  • Request medical assistance
  • Report the sighting of a criminal whom you know is wanted by the police

Call 311 to request city services or information such as missed trash collection, sanitation enforcement, bulk collection, pothole repair, etc.

Residents and visitors can also call 311 to report police non-emergencies. A non-emergency call is defined as any call related to an incident that does not pose an immediate threat to the safety of individuals and/or incidents that occurred at least one hour before the initial request for police assistance is made.

Police non-emergencies include the following:

  • Noise Complaints
  • Traffic Complaints
  • Vandalism
  • Crimes or Incidents that Happened in the Past, No Injury, and the Suspect is No Longer on the Scene

What happens if I call 911 and I'm not immediately connected with a live 911 call taker?

When a caller dials 911 in Washington, DC, they are either met with a live person ready to take their call or a message in multiple languages advising them to stay on the line. All calls where a caller stays in the queue as prompted are answered in the order in which they are received into our 911 system. 911 telephone systems in the United States, including the one in our City, never disconnect a caller.

While we know it is frustrating to have to wait in a queue during an emergency—you should never hang up. When someone hangs up, that is considered an abandoned call. There is a standard to call back abandoned calls. We do that using an automated system built into our phone system. When it calls back, the message asks if you have an emergency and offers to put you back in queue, this is done twice if the first call is not engaged. The most important thing that a caller can do when they call 911 is stay on the line, we will get to you, the phone system will not disconnect you and we will answer the call in the order in which it was received. Those who are in situations that they don't feel like they can talk, can also text. Simply entering 911 into a new text message session and telling us where you are and what the situation is.

Sometimes when I call 911 from Washington, DC, I get a neighboring jurisdiction. Why is that?

Cell phone calls, including 911 calls, are routed through cell phone towers. Sometimes, the location where the cell phone call is being made and the cell phone tower it's being routed through are not in the same jurisdiction. For example, if you're on 30th Place and Perry Street, NE and make a 911 call from your cell phone, you may first be connected with Prince George's County, because that's where the closest cell phone tower is located. 

If your 911 call is routed to a neighboring jurisdiction, stay on the line – we can and will get you to the right jurisdiction within a few seconds and with dynamic location information. Location-based routing technologies allow cellular carriers to route wireless 911 calls based on location information gathered from the handset, rather than the location of the cell tower. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Notice of Inquiry and many carriers started pushing location-based technologies and routing on their networks. This made it so the number of misrouted calls were greatly reduced.

What is OUC doing to remedy this?

We work with our neighbors and the cellular carriers to minimize this occurrence from happening. We often audit tower sites to identify where the majority of the calls originate from. Just recently, we worked with Montgomery County to reroute calls from a tower in their jurisdiction to our center because a majority of the 911 calls that routed through that particular cell phone tower were for emergencies in our city.

When should I call 911?

Call 911 to request service from police, fire, or emergency medical services.  Examples of when you should call 911 include:

  • Any crime in progress or where the offender is still on the scene (or has just left the scene)
  • All serious violent crimes—homicide, robbery, sexual assault, domestic violence, assault—even if the crime is no longer in progress or the offender has left the scene
  • All fires and medical emergencies
  • Home and business intruders
  • Vehicle crashes involving personal injury, major property damage, or traffic tie-ups
  • Sighting of a criminal whom you know is wanted by the police

What information should I provide?

It is critical that you provide the police call-taker with information that is as accurate and complete as possible. Try to remain calm, and speak slowly and clearly. While the information you provide will vary with the incident, there are some critical details that will be required in almost every instance. These include:

  • A brief description of the crime  or incident
  • Time of occurrence
  • Exact location (including street and unit/apartment numbers, if applicable)
  • The extent of injuries or property damage, if any
  • Description of any suspects: gender, race, height, weight, clothing, hair color/style, facial hair, scars/marks/tattoos
  • Weapons used, including a description
  • Description of suspect vehicle: make/model, color, tag numbers (including jurisdiction), whether there are temporary tags on the vehicle
  • The direction of flight: down what street/alley; on foot, bicycle, or motor vehicle
  • Also, it is critical that you give the call-taker your phone number—especially if you are calling from a wireless phone—so that the police can call you back if they need additional information.

Do I have to leave my name?

No. Callers to 911 need not reveal their names, addresses, or phone numbers if they wish to remain anonymous when reporting a crime or incident.  Simply tell the call-taker you wish to remain anonymous, and ask the call-taker to tell the responding officers that you do not want the police to come to your home.

Even if you choose to remain anonymous, however, it is still recommended that you provide your phone number in case the police need to call you back for additional information.

What if I don't speak English?

Callers who do not speak English, or who feel more comfortable communicating in a language other than English, can still access 911 services.  There are call takers at the center who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Amharic, Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Yoruba.  In addition, call takers have immediate access to a language translation service through which translations can be made available in more than 100 different languages and dialects.  If necessary, callers should tell the call-taker they want a language translator to help facilitate the call.

Also, 911 is completely accessible to the hearing impaired. 911 can accept TDD calls; there is no separate TDD number to call for police, fire, or emergency medical services.