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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

A night in the life of a 9-1-1 telecommunicator

As Commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to shadow BOEC telecommunicator, Vanessa Carr, Saturday night. I watched as Vanessa dispatched Fire and Police to incidents, and I listened in while she fielded 9-1-1 and Police non-emergency calls. The experience reinforced for me that BOEC is an incredibly critical component to the safety and well-being of our City. I wanted to share some of my reflections from my experience:

1.) Investments in BOEC are also investments in Police and Fire services

As one of the BOEC staff said on Saturday night, BOEC is the funnel that sorts problems and matches them with the appropriate response. We need a funnel that effectively sorts real emergencies from those problems that don’t require an immediate response, and we need the funnel to know if someone needs an ambulance, Police, or Fire.

As the Commissioner in charge of BOEC, I am committed to advocating for the resources BOEC needs to serve as an effective funnel. That means funding for adequate staffing levels and training opportunities for new and long-term staff, among other investments. After my night at BOEC, I’m more convinced than ever that a budget investment in BOEC is also an investment in the City’s Police and Fire services.

2.) “Invisible” first responders

I already knew that BOEC telecommunicators work incredibly hard, but my experience at BOEC blew me away because of how many dimensions there are to their jobs. Dispatchers manage a continuing flow of information to Police and Fire crews while calltakers must work to glean crucial information from callers who are in distress. Moreover, BOEC telecommunicators are behind the scenes and never see the people they are helping. While Police and Fire are on a scene in person, it is BOEC calltakers and dispatchers who are the voices interfacing with callers and orchestrating the presence of first responders at emergencies.

It was also clear to me that BOEC staff have tough decisions to make. I heard several calls about situations that may have been pressing emergencies but also may not have been a big deal. Calltakers use detailed protocols and their experience to guide how they handle each call, and the public safety often depends on their ability to see both the big picture and the details while using good judgment.

I know if I ever need to call 9-1-1, I’ll want to extend a special thanks to the calltaker and dispatchers who made sure help arrived promptly and at the correct location.

3.) 9-1-1 is only for real emergencies

I was amazed by the number of 9-1-1 calls I heard on Saturday night that weren’t actual emergencies. When people who don’t have real emergencies call 9-1-1, they clog up the phone lines and may delay help for people who really need it. With this in mind, I want to remind all of us to call 9-1-1 only in the event of a true and pressing emergency.

Call 9-1-1 to save a life, report a fire, or stop a crime – examples of when you should call 9-1-1 include an assault happening right now, a fire burning, or a medical problem occurring right now that could be life threatening.

The City also has a non-emergency line you can call 24 hours a day for non-emergency help. Dial 503-823-3333 if, for example, a runaway child as returned home, your home or car was broken into yesterday, your vehicle was stolen sometime overnight, you need to modify a burglary report, or someone stole your bike while you were at school. You might need to wait for an answer to your non-emergency call because BOEC prioritizes 9-1-1 calls to get help to people in immediate need of emergency assistance.

Finally, if you have a general non-emergency question about how to access City or County services, you should call 503-823-4000. The City staffs this general information and referral line from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can also find information on the City’s website or submit a general service request online at

4.) Additional and random observations

  • One dispatcher told me, “alcohol is what keeps us in business.” That seemed to have a lot of truth to it – alcohol is clearly a major factor in many incidents.
  • By the end of the night, I absolutely hated fireworks. I heard many calls from people who said they heard something that might have been a shot or might have been fireworks. That’s frustrating for both BOEC and the Police.
  • Many calls were complaints about noisy neighbors. This reinforced my belief that noise can be a big problem, but it also made me wish people knew they should call the non-emergency number - 503-823-3333 - for noise complaints.

Finally, thanks to Vanessa and BOEC allowing me to get firsthand look at the amazing work operators do. All of the staff at BOEC are true pros and essential first responders who help to keep Portland safe.