If one of your callers attempts to order a pizza on the 9-1-1 line, they’re either playing a worn-out prank on your department, or they’ve seen this social media post:
The post has been reformatted and republished on a number of social media websites and accounts, but the gist is the same: If you’re in trouble but you can’t make it appear as though you’re calling the police, simply dial 9-1-1 and pretend to order a pizza. The dispatcher will automatically know you need help and dispatch officers to your location. Some posts even go as far as to say that asking for mushrooms on your pizza means you’re being held hostage, while ordering stuffed crust means you’re in a domestic violence situation.
It’s a brilliant concept, but unfortunately, ordering a pizza via 9-1-1 isn’t always a reliable way to receive help from the police. Emergency dispatchers are not universally taught how to handle “pizza orders” when they come in on 9-1-1, nor would they all handle it the same way if they were. And while technology does often allow us to narrow down a caller’s location when they can’t clearly give it to us, that technology isn’t always accurate. But no matter how many dispatchers band together to “debunk” these posts online, citizens will still believe they can receive timely police assistance by calling their local department and ordering a stuffed crust pizza.
So what will you do when a caller asks you for a large pepperoni?
First, don’t make assumptions. The caller could easily be a giddy teenager pulling a prank with friends, but they could also be the victim of an in progress emergency. Reiterate that the caller is speaking with the police department and ask this simple yes-or-no question: “Do you have an emergency?”
If the caller says yes—a response that informs you but doesn’t put them in danger—you can begin more specific questioning. “Is there someone in the room with you?” will again allow the caller to answer with “yes” or “no.” If they say no, ask the caller if they can please answer a few questions, and proceed with your agency’s interview procedure. If they say yes, you have to get creative.
In order to keep your caller as safe as possible, you must ask questions that can be answered with phrases typical of a pizza order. “Yes, my husband is standing over me with a gun” is not something someone would normally say when they call to order a pizza. Many of your questions will have to be yes-or-no questions. You’ll have to think on your toes—how can you direct your caller to provide information without jeopardizing their safety?
Below are a few ideas for questions you could ask a caller who’s attempting to “order a pizza”:
“What location should we deliver the pizza to?”
“What is your name?”
“Does the person with you have a weapon?”
“Are you injured?”
“Is anyone else with you in danger?”
“Are you able to safely get away from the person who’s threatening you?”
“Has this happened before?”
You may also tell the caller that if they have to set the phone down, they should leave the line open so you can hear what’s occurring in the background.
If you determine that police or other emergency personnel need to be dispatched, reassure your caller that help is on the way. “We’re going to get this to you as soon as possible” works if you feel the need to stay in character. “Officers have been dispatched to your location” is appropriate if you can be more explicit. Remain cognizant of your agency’s rules for providing callers with estimated times of arrival.
Should officers arrive and determine the event to be a true emergency, don’t blame yourself for not immediately sending all of the necessary help with such limited information. Sometimes the best you can do is send basic help and have first responders decide what other resources are needed once they’re on scene. Instead, remember that when someone called 9-1-1 asking for a mushroom pizza with extra cheese, you knew what to do.