Don't Fall for the Meme That Says You Can Call 911 and Order a Pizza for Help

A brief history of this wildly popular but largely untrue claim.
Photo via Flickr user Tom Ipri

At this point, it seems like Facebook is made entirely of mistake-riddled memes, Russian bots, and sentence fragments from your great-aunt who sometimes mistakes its search bar for Google. But one meme that is making its way around the internet again isn’t just inaccurate: It’s also potentially dangerous.

The soft pink text block doesn’t look problematic at first. “If you need to call 911 but are scared to because someone is in the room, dial and ask for a pepperoni pizza,” it suggests. The dispatcher will ask if you know you’re aware you’ve called for 911, and after you confirm it and share details about your nonexistent dinner order, emergency services will immediately be sent to your location.

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That’s the idea. But in reality, there’s a possibility that your call will be dismissed or treated as a prank.

As this meme has continued to spread, police departments across the United States have written their own social media posts to say, “Please don’t do this, because you might not receive the help you need.” (And, unfortunately, those responses haven’t been shared as quickly or as widely as the pizza thing.)

“Communications has seen this graphic circulating on various social media channels,” the Los Angeles Police Department tweeted. “This is false. Text to 911 is a much better option. Your exact location & the nature of your emergency is what’s needed to send the right resources.” It later followed up with a second, longer message, suggesting that it’s a better option to pretend you’re calling a friend, because its operators are not trained to respond to code words like ‘pepperoni pizza,’ but they can detect “voice inflection [and] odd conversations that would indicate a dangerous situation.”

This advice was quickly echoed by police departments in Iowa, and Illinois, among others. And the Facebook page “Diary of a Mad Dispatcher,” written by a North Carolina-based 911 dispatcher, said that if you do call 911 and say that you’d like to order a pizza, the most important thing is to listen to what the dispatcher says, to answer any of the yes or no questions that he or she asks and not to hang up the phone at the end of the call.

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“It will most likely take longer for the police to get there than placing an actual pizza order would take so when you have to get off the phone DO NOT HANG UP the phone line,” she writes. “Just leave the phone line open and set the phone down. Dispatchers are trained to see with their ears. Everything that happens on that open line will allow the Dispatchers to keep the officers enroute updated as to the situation.”

The Order-A-Pizza suggestion has circulated on the internet for at least four years, seemingly originating with a Reddit post by a former 911 dispatcher, in response to the question “911 operators, what is the 1 call you could never forget?” Keith Weisinger wrote about answering a call that “started out pretty dumb, but was actually pretty serious,” and involved a victim of domestic violence calling to place an order for a half-pepperoni, half-mushroom and pepper pizza. Weisinger said he determined that she was in trouble and, when police officers arrived at her house, they found a woman who had been assaulted by her boyfriend. "I remember feeling relieved we had an officer close by who could respond quickly," he told Buzzfeed about the incident. (Although Snopes says that Weisinger’s story is awfully similar to a 2010 commercial for the Norwegian Women's Shelter Association).

A few months later, NO MORE, a public service campaign designed to “end the silence and inaction around domestic violence,” ran a commercial during Super Bowl XLIX that featured a 911 caller asking the dispatcher for a pepperoni pizza. (The dialogue between the two of them was pulled from Weisinger’s Reddit post). It has continued to circulate since then—and will undoubtedly reappear another dozen times.

So no, you shouldn’t count on a dispatcher to immediately understand what you mean by ‘pepperoni pizza,’ but if you do stay on the line, they might be able to understand that you’re under duress. But, as the Carbondale (Ill.) Police Department wrote, that pizza order isn’t what you should focus on. “If you can't talk out of fear, leave the line open, and our team will use information they hear to get you help,” they said. “If you can only say one thing, make it the address where you are.”

Not whether you want anchovies.