‘We have to triage’: Yakima 911 dispatchers expect at least 1,200 calls on the Fourth of July

Yakima 911 Calls Fourth Of July
Credit: Emily Goodell, KAPP-KVEW

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Emergency dispatchers in Yakima County are asking the community to file online reports for non-emergency issues on the Fourth of July to not add to the 1,200 to 1,600 calls they’re likely to receive on the holiday.

“Probably our number one [call] is ‘So and so was setting off fireworks,’’ said Belen Lopez, a 911 call taker at SunComm 911 Communications. “We know. Thank you for reporting it, but we got to let you go.”

While illegal fireworks are a concern, Lopez said unless someone is hurt or someone’s property is being threatened, it’s likely not an emergency and can be reported to police online.

“Think of it in terms of, is there a threat to life? Or a threat to your property? Is it happening right now?” Lopez said. “If it’s yes to all three of those, it’s an emergency.”

Lopez said every non-emergency call — whether it’s for fireworks or to report a missing pet —delays dispatchers from getting first responders out to potentially life-threatening situations.

“We could get hundreds of them and while we’re dealing with those, there’s other people doing things they shouldn’t that are actually hurting people,” Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said.

Lopez said they have to triage calls, just like doctors do in the emergency room. She said that’s why people should be prepared to be put on hold while dispatchers deal with another call.

“That next line could be somebody having a heart attack, it could be somebody not breathing, it could be somebody who’s just been stabbed,” Lopez said. “So if I put you on hold, don’t hang up. I’m gonna get back to you.”

However, Lopez said if people aren’t sure if it’s an emergency, they should call just to be safe — especially if people are unsure whether they’re hearing gunshots or fireworks.

“The more specific you are about where the, where the noise is coming from, the faster we can get to it,” Udell said. “Then we can move on, if it’s nothing, or if someone does need help, we’re there faster.”

Lopez said when calling 911, it’s important to try to stay calm, start with your name and location and then answer the dispatcher’s questions from there.

“Based on your responses, we’re going to determine how much help you need and how quickly that help is gonna get there,” Lopez said.

Like many other dispatch agencies, Lopez said they’ll be dealing with understaffing in addition to the increased volume on the holiday. She said there will be two call takers answering every 911 made in Yakima County.

Those call takers will then transfer the call to the appropriate dispatch center. If it’s a call made from Yakima or Union Gap, they’ll keep it at SunComm and transfer it to one of the two to three dispatchers on duty.

“This could be it on the Fourth of July: two call takers and two dispatchers,” Lopez said.

Lopez said they are currently hiring 911 call takers and dispatchers and would love to have more people join their team. More information can be found on the SunComm 911 Communications website.