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911 Bureau of Emergency Communications

Partners in Public Safety. Call 911: Save a Life, Report a Fire, Stop a Crime.

How Does 911 Work?

How Does My Call Get to 911?

When you call from a landline telephone installed at a residence, business or a pay phone, the telephone number determines which 911 center you reach. Each 911 center or Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) has an enormous list of phone numbers that are designated to come to that center. All of these numbers have a special secondary number on file with the phone company that directs your call to the correct 911 center for your area. Automatic Number Identification and Automatic Location Identification (ANI/ALI) will automatically display at the 911 center, letting the calltaker know what number you're calling from and the address you are calling from.

If you call 911 from a cell phone the process is slightly different. Cell phones transmit to the nearest cellular tower and from there to the closest 911 center. The 911 center is determined by the location of the cell tower. Wireless 911 is not as reliable as landline service. Do not assume that the 911 calltaker knows who your are or where you calling from. Sometimes if you are close to a county or state border, you might reach the wrong 911 center. In some locations responses for various types of calls may come from more than one jurisdiction. In those cases you might speak to more than one 911 calltaker, as each 911 center involved gathers the information they need.

Text-to-911 is available in Multnomah County for those individuals that may not be able to speak due to an emergency such as a home invasion or abusive partner, as well as individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have limited speech capabilities. Location accuracy for Text-to-911 can be worse for texting than it is for voice calls to 911 from cell phones.  Like other 911 calls, Text-to-911 should be used only for in progress emergencies: those requiring immediate response from Police, Fire and/or EMS. Portland / Multnomah County 911 center is also equipped with a Text Telephone (TTY) device to allow communication through your TTY device.

If you do not speak English, we will contact a language translation service to provide an interpreter. 

Once you reach 911, the calltaker will ask some questions. If you do not have an emergency, you will be will referred to the non-emergency number, (503) 823-3333. Some of these calls are distributed through the non-emergency phone tree, but most non-emergency calls are answered by the same 911 calltakers. (Non-emergency calls may be interrupted if a 911 call is holding).

If you do have an emergency, the 911 calltaker will ask you questions to determine who to send. Some of these questions will be:

  • Where are you?  There are ambulances, fire trucks and police officers all over Multnomah County. We want to send the ones who are closest and can provide the quickest help. We really want an exact address, but sometimes you won't know that. We will ask for cross streets, what kind of building it is, what color is it and other questions to help us find you as quickly as possible.
  • What is going on now? We will ask specific questions related to the situation. Sometimes responders may need special equipment, and not all vehicles carry the same kind of stuff. We want to send you the right help. 

 While we ask the questions, we are entering the information into a computerized dispatch system. Other dispatchers can see that information and will send help to you while we are still talking to you on the phone. Answering questions does not delay response. We will often keep you on the phone and obtain more information to give the responders. For example, it often helps the paramedics on the ambulance to know what kind of medication the patient takes every day. The patient might be having a breathing problem that is unrelated to the medication, but that information will improve the quality of care the paramedics can provide.

We handle over a million calls a year at Portland / Multnomah County 911. The dispatchers keep track of all the responding units and all of the calls waiting for service. Sometimes it is necessary to change the assignment of a unit so they can respond to a different call that is more of an emergency. On our busiest days, some non-emergency calls can wait for a significant amount of time. Please do not hang up, we have not forgotten you, and we are working as fast as we can.