Pizza Hut call: How 911 dispatchers are trained to handle cases of domestic violence

One victim of domestic violence pretended to order pizza online and had pizza shop workers call 911 for her so as not to alert her attacker. How are dispatchers trained to handle this?

Samantha Cronk/AP
Dispatcher Heather Grandstaff awaits incoming 911 calls as part of her job at Berkeley County Central Dispatch, Monday, March 2, 2015 in Martinsburg, W.Va. Soon, dispatchers will be able to more easily connect non-English speaking callers to interpreters by contracting with a new service provider.

On Wednesday morning, a central Florida woman rescued herself and her children from a hostage situation by including a plea for help in an online pizza order.

In two different places in the order, she wrote “Please help. Get 911 to me.” and “911 hostage help!”  Employees at the Pizza Hut recognized the order as frequent customer and called the police, who responded and arrested the woman’s boyfriend.

"I don't know if I would have thought of it," Highlands County (Florida) Sheriff's Lt. Curtis Ludden said of the message in the pizza order. "I mean it's just something she did so naturally. The boyfriend never knew about it until he saw us coming around the corner."

In another 911 call, a woman who had been beaten called 911 and pretended to order a pizza so as not to alert her attacker, who was still in the room. The dispatcher who answered the call detailed the conversation in a post on Reddit. While he was confused at first, he caught on and was able to send the woman help.

911 dispatchers go through a 40-hour training course to learn the basics of responding to emergencies, but there is an additional eight hours of training for learning the protocols for how to talk to victims of domestic violence. 

“The way they ask their questions will have to be restructured,” James Lake, director of Charleston County Dispatch, told WCIV-TV News in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. “So instead of asking an open-ended question, they would have to ask a yes or no type question to get that specific response … Those calls actually happen more often than you might imagine.”

In training courses, the dispatchers are taught to make a connection with the victim in order to figure out what kind of danger they are in.

“We try to train our dispatchers and have them understand these are definitely victims,” Lake said. “Their concerns, their issues have to be handled very gently. And we have to be very empathetic to what their needs are.”

On the other hand, there are important dos and don’ts of calling 911.

Even if you call accidentally, do not hang up. Instead, explain to the dispatcher what happened. Likewise, you should always stay on the phone until the dispatcher tells you to hang up since they need to get all the information from you they need.

If you don’t have a cell signal or you have a old disconnected phone, you can still call 911. The Federal Communications Commision requires all cell service providers to accept 911 calls from any wireless phones.

If a phone is locked, you can still use it to call 911, and you can technically text 911 in certain areas of the US, although people are encouraged to call whenever possible.

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