Following nationwide news media coverage of a woman in Ohio who recently called 911 and "ordered a pizza" as a method of covertly asking for emergency assistance, many on social media are now encouraging others in a similar situation to do the same. But local law enforcement warns there are a number of factors which need consideration before mimicking that specific scenario.
Captain Kyle Nall, Commander of Kentucky State Police Post 1, said while dispatchers at the KSP training academy are taught "active listening skills" by reviewing real-life calls made by people in distress, some of whom pretended to order a pizza, that doesn't mean someone can dial 9-1-1, ask for a pizza, and assume the dispatcher knows what that means.
In Nov., a woman in Oregon, Ohio called 911 to report her mother was being physically assaulted by a man in their home; because she didn't want to escalate an already volatile situation before help could arrive, she pretended to order a pizza. Initially, the dispatcher sounded as if he believed it was a prank call but as she persisted, he clued in to what was happening and successfully sent the help her family needed.
"It's a textbook example of a dispatcher going above and beyond, listening for clues and understanding the situation, and giving information to responders. When he started dispatching to that residence, he was smart enough and aware enough to give the responders the foresight to cut off their sirens," Nall said. "That's what our dispatchers train to do and aim to do--get behind-the-scenes facts to officers and any other responders. But if you say, 'extra cheese,' we don't necessarily know that means you need an ambulance, so our dispatchers are trained to ask questions and stay on the line for as long as possible to safely deliver all resources needed."
Nall recalled another example taught at the KSP dispatcher academy, an incident during which a woman actually contacted a pizza restaurant to request emergency assistance.
In May 2015, in Avon Park, Florida, a woman and her three children were being held hostage by her boyfriend. He had reportedly kept her phone away from her all day but allowed her access to order a pizza using the app on her smartphone. In the comments section of the order where customers are able to relay messages such as, "extra sauce on the side" or "doorbell broken, please knock," the woman wrote, "Get help to me. 911. Hostage. Help."
The manager of the restaurant told local media they immediately called for help and when the man opened his door expecting dinner, he was met by law enforcement instead.
And while there are several incidents in which ordering a pizza has been a successful way to covertly call for help, Nall said ordering a pizza is not always a feasible way to relay information to dispatchers.
For instance, Nall said, there are many areas in western Kentucky where even pizza restaurants don't deliver. So if a person in distress is in one of those areas and they're in a dangerous situation with an attacker who knows that detail, calling 911 and ordering a pizza will likely escalate the situation; instead, that person may want to consider other types of service calls such as "scheduling car maintenance" or "confirming/cancelling a doctor's appointment."
Nall said something else to keep in mind is that as awareness spreads of this particular tactic, it increases the likelihood of the perpetrator knowing what's going on. Not to say it rules out "ordering a pizza," he said, just something to keep in mind when mentally preparing should the occasion arise when emergency assistance is needed.
"For me as the commander at Post 1 and as a previous dispatcher, my job is making sure that when asking for help requires tactics, our people are trained to actively listen for those clues," he said. "My motto is, 'A failure to plan is a plan for failure.' And with the popularity of this tactic on the rise again, I've made a push at our local post to ensure our dispatchers are aware."
"I would never judge someone in a violent situation for any tactic they use in trying to get out of that situation," he added. "If you're in need, you have to do what you need to do in order to get out the call for help. But the active listening skills KSP uses in its curriculum may not be standard in all training centers so the caller has to be ready to help. In a best-case scenario you will be able to tell the dispatcher exactly where you are, who you are and who all is involved in the situation, what's going on and what type of help you need."
Nall said another tactic commonly cited is to call 911 and then hang up without speaking, or just leaving the line open. While that sometimes works, he said there are dangers to making a blanket assumption about the effectiveness of that method as well.
If dispatch receives a hang-up call, Nall said they're trained to call right back--so consider whether or not that immediate call-back might escalate the situation. Also, if the caller hangs up too quickly the system may not be able to identify the location of the call.
If the plan is to call and leave the line open, Nall said calling from a landline is ideal because it provides an exact location and the dispatcher will be able to listen and relay what they're able to hear to the responders.
Nall said an open line on a cell phone can work, but relaying the exact location in some way is going to ensure a much faster response because if the call is not in the proper phase, the dispatchers may not be able to get any closer than a quarter-mile radius. In a more rural area where there aren't many homes, a quarter-mile radius may not be as difficult to narrow down but in an urban area where homes are stacked closely together, he said, it's going to take time for law enforcement to knock on every door.
In situations such as the incident which recently happened in Oregon, Ohio, Nall said the ability to text 911 for assistance would certainly be a viable option in covertly requesting assistance--but that method only works in areas with the technology to support it.
Nall said KSP telecommunications officials report they have two more PSAPs (public safety answering points) to get on board before text-to-911 rolls out statewide for KSP, which is projected to take place within the next year.
But when texting dispatch there are a few key considerations to make there as well, Nall said, which is the same information as needed when calling: where help is needed, who is there, what's going on and what type of help is needed.
Nall said something else you would need to relay to dispatchers is if a returned text will put you in more danger because it's likely the protocol will include a returned text message, at the very least to confirm help is on the way.
Marshall County E-911 launched text-to-911 in June 2019 which allows people located in the county to communicate with its dispatchers directly via text. Marshall County E-911 Director Chris Freeman was not available for comment.