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911 Response Time: In An Emergency, How Far Away Is Help?

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911 Response Time: In An Emergency, How Far Away Is Help?
December 11, 2019
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911 Response Time: In An Emergency, How Far Away Is Help?

Minutes

matter. Learn the average emergency response times 

We don’t often need emergency services. But when you do need police, firefighters, or an ambulance, you really need them. How long will it take help to arrive after dialing 911? There are several factors affecting emergency response time. In this article, we:

  • Look at how the 911 system works
  • Dig into some common factors affecting emergency response times
  • Examine police response times in some major cities and for some common crimes, plus average fire department response times
  • Discuss how a monitored smart home security system calls for help

How does

911 work?

The American 911 system is something of a miracle. In 1967, a joint effort by AT&T, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the U.S. Congress established “9-1-1” as the universal emergency number. After that, municipalities all over the country cooperated with telecommunication companies to set up local systems. As the LA Times reports, about 90% of the country merely has to dial those three numbers to summon police, firefighters, or an ambulance.

So, what happens when you dial 911? It’s simple:

  1. The telephone provider recognizes the number.
  2. They route the call to the closest public safety answering point (PSAP). For landlines, the address associated with your phone number is checked against municipal boundaries. If local authorities have coordinated with telecommunication companies to do so, cell phone calls are quickly geolocated with cell towers.
  3. From there, a 911 dispatcher speaks with you, offering guidance and determining the details of the emergency.
  4. Emergency services are dispatched as appropriate.

Telephone providers have information about you that they can share with the PSAP. Under the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999, telecom providers are authorized and required to implement enhanced 911 (or E911) to provide a 911 caller’s information, including name, location, and phone number, to the PSAP.

Sharing caller location with the 911 system is simple for landlines. The FCC has called for two phases, Phase I and Phase II, to implement E911 for mobile phones. Under Phase I, telecom providers share the location of the cell tower transmitting the 911 call. Under Phase II, they obtain a more precise location, accurate to between 50 and 300 meters. According to the National Emergency Number Association, more than 80% of the counties in every state but Alaska and Nevada are now E911-capable.

Picture of a 911 DispatcherPicture of a 911 Dispatcher

Factors

affecting emergency response time

If the clock starts when the 911 dispatcher sends emergency services to you, how long does it take help to arrive? It depends on a number of factors, including the priority of the emergency, the number of personnel available, the distance that emergency services have to cover, and more.

Call priority

Naturally, you want police, firefighters, or medical responders to get there as fast as they can. But not every 911 call is created equal. A stolen car is not as serious as a home invasion happening right now. A suspicious person in the neighborhood is not as serious as a burning building. And a simple broken bone, regardless of the pain, is not as serious as a heart attack.

911 dispatchers triage the calls they receive, sorting them by priority. The highest-priority calls (often called “Priority 1,” depending on the jurisdiction) are immediate, life-threatening situations. Less urgent calls, in roughly descending order, include:

  • The immediate threat of serious property damage
  • Situations where a quick response wouldn't save a life but would be useful (such as apprehending a criminal)
  • Situations requiring fact-finding or assistance (like taking a report about stolen goods or a vehicle accident with no injuries)

Because high-speed driving with lights and sirens on is inherently dangerous, it is reserved for only higher-priority calls. For everything else, first responders will get there as soon as they can, within reason. For low-priority calls, it will take longer for units to be assigned and it’s possible that they will be reassigned to more urgent calls.

Number and type of personnel available

The number and type of police officers, firefighters, and EMTs on duty can affect response times. As the Dallas Morning News reported about police response times, shrinking department numbers put stress on the ability of officers to respond quickly. Having too many officers assigned to special units and not enough on patrol duty can also increase response times.

Firefighting response times face a different but related problem: the number and availability of volunteer firefighters. According to Government Technology, 70% of America’s firefighters are volunteers and about 85% of the nation’s fire departments are mostly or totally made up of volunteers. Volunteer firefighters collectively save municipalities $139.8 billion per year. But volunteer numbers are getting lower and volunteers are aging. Combine this with the coordination problems that arise because volunteers can’t always work the 12-hour shifts of career firefighters, and there are some growing challenges to emergency response time.

We all want well-paid, well-trained, and well-equipped personnel to come to our rescue when we call 911. Check out this Frontpoint blog on how firefighter salaries vary by state.

Distance

It’s common sense: if police, firefighters, or EMTs have to drive far to reach you, response times will be slower. In some urban areas, low police and fire station density can make it harder for first responders to arrive quickly because they are stretched too thin. This problem may be compounded in rural areas. If your only emergency services are the county sheriff’s office and the county fire department, the nearest deputy or firetruck could be in the next town over. Also, consider road conditions; if roads are iced over or clogged with traffic, it will take longer for emergency vehicles to reach the scene.

Average emergency

response times

It’s tricky to determine the average police and firefighter response time in different cities. Such information is not always widely publicized or centrally reported. Moreover, there aren’t statistical standards for the data that does exist; one department might report a single average response time while another might break the data down by call priority or type of crime.

Police response times

The Bureau of Justice Statistics does publish data on police response times by type of crime. The table below breaks down the information. On average, police nationwide respond to household burglaries in one hour or less 82.3% of the time and within 10 minutes 35.4% of the time. Crimes of violence have the fastest response times, with 28.3% drawing the police within five minutes and 58.6% getting a response within 10 minutes:

Chart of Police Response TimesChart of Police Response Times
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Here are some average police response times, broken down by city:

  • Denver (2013) priority 0-1 calls: 14.3 minutes
  • New York City (2012): 9.1 minutes
  • Milwaukee (2010) priority 1 calls: about 14 minutes
  • Dallas (2018) priority 1 calls: 8.35 minutes

Fire department response times

Due to the nature of fire and how quickly it can claim property and lives, firefighters have faster average response times than law enforcement. A comprehensive 2006 report on “Structure Fire Response Times” issued by the National Fire Data Center in Emmitsburg, MD found the following:

  • “Regardless of region, season, or time of day, structure fire response times are generally less than 5 minutes half the time.”
  • “The nationwide 90th percentile response time to structure fires is less than 11 minutes.”
  • “Structure fires in the Northeast have the lowest response times while those in the West have the highest.”

In addition, two standards from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have outlined target guidelines for firefighter deployment and arrival at a fire of six minutes, 90 percent of the time. This standard estimates one minute for dispatch time, one minute for firefighter turnout (preparation), and four minutes for drive time.

Picture of a Frontpoint Security PackagePicture of a Frontpoint Security Package

How smart

home security systems help you call for help

A professionally monitored security system can dispatch emergency services to your home in case of a fire, break-in, or another dangerous event. If you aren't at home and/or available, are incapacitated, or are under duress, the system will alert monitoring professionals who summon assistance.

When it comes to calling 911, there are two kinds of smart home security systems: unmonitored and monitored.

Unmonitored home security systems

“Unmonitored” is a slight misnomer for these security systems. They are monitored—by you. When you install an unmonitored smart home security system, the information from any intrusion or environmental sensors is sent to your personal mobile device. If a sensor is tripped, you have to evaluate the information you are given and decide whether or not to call emergency services.

Unmonitored security services leave summoning help to you. This can be a problem for several reasons, as explained in our previous article about the difference between monitored and unmonitored systems.

If you don’t get an alert (perhaps you are on a plane or in a meeting, or hiking somewhere without cell service), no help will come. If an emergency such as a fire occurs and leaves you unable to call 911, no help will come. In addition, if you get notifications about a break-in or fire while you are traveling, you will have to deal with the E911 feature that routes cell phone calls to the jurisdiction from which the call originates. You’ll have to carry around your municipality’s dedicated emergency number or waste time directing the dispatchers to your appropriate jurisdiction.

Monitored home security systems

Frontpoint’s professionally monitored home security system provides far greater peace of mind. Whenever one of your armed sensors (like a Motion Sensor, Door/Window Sensor, or Glass Break Sensor) or an environmental sensor (like a Smoke and Heat Sensor or a Carbon Monoxide Sensor) is triggered, it sends a signal to the Frontpoint Hub. After that, three things happen:

  • The alarm sounds in the home
  • Notifications are sent to your devices
  • Frontpoint’s professional monitoring service receives an alert

When the professional monitoring service gets this alert, they immediately try to contact you by calling twice. If you answer the phone, they will 1) determine whether you are an intruder by asking for your password and 2) determine whether there is an emergency. If you aren’t home and you have smart cameras, you can check your video feed to see what’s going on. The monitoring service will never check your cameras, however.

If you can’t give your password or you confirm that there is an emergency, the professional monitors summon help. If no one answers, they summon help. One critical exception to all this is the carbon monoxide sensor; if that triggers, the monitoring service calls 911 immediately because CO is so deadly.

With monitored home security, emergency services can be summoned quickly, even if you can’t call them yourself. And if you have a camera system that lets you see whether a real emergency is occurring, you can make sure that your 911 call is treated with the urgency it deserves.

When you

call 911, you want help to get there fast

Minutes matter in an emergency. The American 911 system helps you quickly communicate with local emergency services to get them to you as soon as possible. There are many factors affecting the swiftness of emergency response, including the severity of the emergency, the number and type of personnel available to respond, and the distance they have to travel. And, of course, how quickly emergency services are notified in the first place.

A monitored smart home security system from Frontpoint will help you get a quick emergency response, even if you can't make the call.


Frontpoint keeps homes safe whether families are there or not. We've been revolutionizing the home security industry for over a decade. And we're just getting started. To shop DIY home security systems, check out our Security Packages. If you have questions or would like to discuss a quote, contact us at 1-877-602-5276.

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