The 4-1-1 on 9-1-1

Sometimes, the Funniest Calls Are Calls for Help

By Buck Wolf

Sept. 7, 2001 — Never underestimate human stupidity. A 28-year-old guy called 911 threatening suicide. His method? He swallowed several nitroglycerin pills, prescribed for a heart condition, and repeatedly slammed himself into the wall, trying to make himself explode.

Another guy called 911 with a most peculiar feeling. "I went out to dinner and brought home my leftover pizza," he told the dispatcher.

"But I left it in the car, and this morning … it was soggy … It tasted kind of funny, so I went back out to the car and noticed that the antifreeze had spilled onto my pizza. Is that dangerous?"

Sept. 11 is National 911 Day. It's time to appreciate the only number you need to remember when everything goes wrong. The brave network of 911 dispatchers across the country field some 250,000 calls each day.

It would be impossible to measure the value of the public service they provide. And it would be equally hard not to laugh hysterically at the stories they tell, as recounted in Leland Gregory's What's the Number for 911 Again? (Andrews McMeel).

911 operators keep records of their work, and Gregory has plowed through hours of recordings to come up with the best stuff. As the co-author of America's Dumbest Criminals, Gregory has a knack for turning public documents into true-life comedy. [Click on the audio box and listen to some call yourself. Gregory sells an audio version of his book at his Web site.]

"A lot of the best stuff, 911 operators send to me," he says.

He leaves out names and identifying information. And that probably saves him a fortune in liability suits. Who would want to be known as the guy who called 911 to ask, "Can my woman refuse to let me shower with her?"

"I guess some people will say things to their 911 operator that they'd be too embarrassed to tell a therapist," Gregory says.

Others seem to dial 911 because they're lonely and emotionally fragile: "The manager of the hotel yelled at me. My self-esteem has been damaged and I'm humiliated."