How to make the perfect 911 call from the backcountry

In Public by Anna Debattiste

Making a 911 call for help sounds simple, but if you’ve ever had to do it during a true emergency you know that stress, anxiety and confusion can get in the way, especially if you are the person experiencing the emergency.

The first step, of course, is knowing when to make that call.  Backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) teams in Colorado do not charge for their services and they are available for anyone lost, injured or ill in the backcountry.  They would rather you call sooner than later if you truly need assistance.  Calling because you’re tired, however, is a misuse of these rescuers, most of whom are volunteers.

Once you’ve determined the need, the most important thing to do is to identify your location.  Learn how to get location coordinates from a mapping app on your phone, or better yet, how to “drop a pin,” which means marking your location on an electronic map.  

“Location is everything.  If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything,” says Trina Dummer, deputy director for Summit County’s 911 dispatch center. 

But can’t dispatchers get your location from the 911 call?  There are several sources of location identification available to dispatchers. Coordinates can come from cell phone pings on the nearest tower, so they can give a general idea of your location but it is not specific enough for rescuers to find you efficiently.  Coordinates may also ping from the nearest tower but give the actual location you are calling from, although these coordinates are estimated by some dispatchers to be accurate only about 80 percent of the time.  Also, it is not always possible for dispatchers to get these coordinates because sometimes the call doesn’t last long enough.  Lastly, many areas, including Jefferson and Clear Creek counties, use a newer technology which gets location information from the cellular device rather than tower location and is typically more accurate and reliable.  But it is not available everywhere as of this writing.

If using mapping apps to determine GPS coordinates isn’t your thing, consider downloading the What3words app.  What3words is a proprietary geocode system designed to identify any location on the surface of earth to within about nine feet. The system encodes geographic coordinates into three permanently fixed dictionary words.

Sometimes, if you know your exact physical location according to well-known landmarks, a description might actually be faster than relaying coordinates.  For example, “I’m at the end of the trail to Lilly Pad Lake, right at the lake shore,” or, “I’m on the summit of Sneffels.”

Bottom line – before you call, determine how you will describe your location, by landmarks or by coordinates, and write it down or verbally rehearse it.  

Now it’s time to make that call. Take a breath. If you’re in a group, do a check of everyone’s cell phone battery levels and use the phone that has the best battery life.  

After you’ve given your location, one of the next items you should communicate is your phone number.  “Usually we can see that, says Dummer, “but sometimes the phone goes into emergency mode and then all we can see is a call to 911.  If we lose connection, we can’t call you back.”

Dispatchers will typically then begin to ask a series of “W” questions.  Protocols vary slightly from one dispatch center to another, but there are many standard questions.  Amber Lillard of WestCO Emergency Communications in Montrose summarizes, “What’s your emergency?  When did it occur?  Who was involved?  What caused the injury?  What trailhead did you leave from, what was your destination, what landmarks did you pass along the way?”  Other questions might include your elevation, how many people are in your party, what the group is carrying, what the weather conditions are, and what level of backcountry experience everyone has.  Taking just a few seconds before you dial to rehearse answers to these questions in your mind  is important. It will help the call go more smoothly, ensure greater accuracy of your information, and likely save time in the end. 

Samantha Goda with Jeffcom 911 in Jefferson and Clear Creek Counties talks about the important distinction between a medical call and a call that might involve scene safety considerations.  “Essentially, we assess what type of backcountry rescue situation we’re looking at and then if it’s determined that the call is relating to a medical issue or injury without any additional extenuating complications, we address the injury or illness. But the primary concern is always scene safety first.  For example, we want to make sure callers aren’t in a position to trigger a secondary avalanche or rockslide while providing medical attention.”

Lillard adds, “Many out-of-staters don’t recognize the complexity of our area and the altitude considerations that may come into play.”

To summarize, here is the most important information you need to report at the beginning of your call:

  • Location
  • Phone number
  • Nature of the emergency
  • Injuries, in order of seriousness

What if you don’t have enough cell phone reception to make a call?  First, make sure to attempt it even if it looks like you don’t have reception through your carrier, because 911 calls may jump to another carrier’s network.  If that doesn’t work, be aware that 911 dispatch centers can receive text messages also.  “We prefer a phone call,” says Dummer, “but sometimes it’s not possible.”

Once the call is made, the dispatchers may “patch” your call along to the local BSAR team, or a representative will call you to gather more detailed information. Staying put is one of the most important things the caller can do, assuming the caller is on the scene of the emergency.  Moving to another location will cause rescuers to have to search for you.  However, Lillard says that if the injured party would not be left alone and the injury is not critical, she might suggest the reporting party walk down to the trailhead to escort rescuers to the scene.

Another consideration dispatchers discussed was calling friends and family back home, and conserving cell phone battery life.  “Don’t call others at home first and have them call 911.  Call 911 yourself first,” says Goda.  Lillard adds, “Calling family members to let them know you’re lost or injured is fine, but ask them not to tie up dispatch, and watch out for draining your battery.”   Carrying solar chargers or back-up batteries for longer adventures can help ensure you have the battery life to make that call when you need to, and will also allow dispatchers to stay in contact until rescuers have reached you. 

Your 911 call might not really be “perfect,” but following these guidelines will ensure you’ve done everything you can to help rescuers get to you as quickly as possible.  

To learn more:

How to Handle a Backcountry Emergency

Why are Backcountry Search and Rescue Teams Always Harping About the Ten Essentials?