6 family-friendly tips for placing an emergency phone call

Guest post by shadymama
Photo by tahitianlime, used under Creative Commons license.

If you live in the United States you know that three digit, potentially terrifying phone number. Indeed, I’m talking about the 9-1-1 (Editor’s note: a list of international emergency numbers can be found here.) We all know it, and we all hope we’ll never have to be the ones to dial it. As a 911 call-taker and dispatcher, I love my job even though it’s sometimes stressful, scary, or overwhelming.

One of the biggest challenges in my profession, however, is dealing with a public that has little to no understanding of the 911 system. In emergencies, including but not limited to the life or death situations, mere seconds can make a big difference in the outcome. Here are some tips to minimize panic and maximize response times in the event you or your kids have to make that call.

1) Make sure everyone knows your location

This is by far the Most Important Rule for placing emergency calls. Make sure everyone who is of dialing age knows your home address — this may seem obvious, but without going into too many (frustrating) details, I’ve had many calls from adult callers who do not know their own address. Not at home? That’s fine — look for clues in the surrounding area, and teach your kids to do the same. If you’re at a friend or family member’s house, point out a piece of mail. If you’re on a family car trip try to keep semi-decent track of mile markers and know what highway or road you’re on — it may not be practical to make sure your kids are keeping up, but if you know where you are you’ll be able to tell whoever is making the call.

2) Listen

This may seem harsh — after all, you’re calling 9-1-1 to alert us of a potentially dangerous or emergency situation, right? As much as that is true, there is Very Specific Information we need to gather in the shortest amount of time possible. If you won’t stop talking, it takes us even longer to do so, resulting in longer response times all around. I promise, we are highly trained individuals, asking questions Very Purposefully, so that we can help as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s incredibly important that when discussing emergency calls with your kids you stress this tip — listen, listen, listen.

3) Answer the questions asked to the best of your ability

This seems like a no-brainer, but I cannot even convey how many times I ask for pertinent information only to have the caller say back to me, “That’s not important! Just send somebody!” Chances are, we have sent someone already, and it is important, otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting your time asking it. As an agency that literally has lives on the line, we have stringent and well researched protocols in place. These can range from the required order you ask questions of the RP (Reporting Party) to the exact wording you use to ask said questions. We want to help, and we want to help quickly and effectively — help us do that by answering our queries.

4) Telling us to hurry up doesn’t make anything happen any faster

But it can slow us down. Because of the way dispatch centers are set up, 99% of the time, someone other than the person you are talking to is already sending an ambulance/fire truck/law enforcement officer while the call taker you have on the line is gathering further info from you. It’s completely natural to say things like “Please hurry, please hurry” in an emergency, but it’s so important for you and your kids to understand that we’re doing everything we can.

5) Our tone does not reflect how much we want to help you

I won’t lie — sometimes I have to use my Mean Mama Voice with callers. It’s not because I’m cranky or angry with them and it’s not because I’m on a power trip or rude. It’s because sometimes, if someone is panicking, they need to be told What To Do, straight up. I’m not trying to be heinous — I’m just trying to get my caller to listen and either answer my questions or act accordingly. If I am giving CPR instructions to someone, it is extremely important they hear me out and follow those instructions verbatim. The caller cannot do that if they are totally freaking out, so I might have to be stern to be effective.

6) Stay calm

Easier said than done — I know this, I truly do. I also know that the best outcomes for the worst calls come when callers are able to maintain their composure, answer our questions quickly and follow our instructions. Take a deep breath and try to remember that you’re in good hands.

Emergencies are totally scary, shitty and unfair — but they happen. Hopefully you won’t ever be in an emergency situation, but if you are, remembering these tips — or even printing them and hanging them somewhere the entire family can easily access — could greatly change the outcome.

Comments on 6 family-friendly tips for placing an emergency phone call

  1. This would be a wonderful cross-post to OBH! Thanks for the tips; I’ve never had to call 911, but I’ll try to remember these if I ever do.

  2. absolutely great tips! Especially the KNOW WHERE YOU ARE tip. I’ve had to respond to emergencies (of sorts, I used to be a veterinary technician, and that meant that everyone who knew me would call me for any animal related issue ever) and I cannot even begin to describe how horrible it is to get a call from someone panicking because they just hit a dog and not being able to FIND them, because they aren’t sure where they are.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this and for what you do. I was one of those people who panicked because I didn’t know where I was. When I was in college I went to stay with my grandparents to help out after my grandmother had a brain tumor removed. I ended up needing to call 911 one evening and completely panicked. The 911 operator definitely had to use her tough mamma voice to get my attention and tell me look for mail.

    I may print this out and add it to our emergency info that is on our fridge (dr’s #s, fact sheet on infant CPR, etc)

    • thank you, keren, for the thanks. yer so very welcome. and panicking on a 911 phone call? it absolutely happens and is 100% Totally Understandable.

  4. Having an address is HUGE. When I used to babysit I always asked the parents to write down their address for me in case of an emergency. Now, when I have my sister watch my son I make sure that I keep mine posted on my fridge where it can easily be seen. It’s easy to overlook, but really important.

  5. Thanks for the tips! Unfortunately, I’ve had to call 911 on more than one occasion, and one lesson I’ve learned is to use a landline whenever possible. I know most people use cell phones exclusively these days, but I’ve had to report an emergency on more than one occasion from my work, and I’ve learned that emergency personnel have a much easier time finding your location when you grab the desk phone instead of your mobile.

    • absolutely, ashley! most PSAPs (public service answering points) have E-911 technology, thus – if you call on a landline, we know where you are. technology is pretty fallible, however, and nothing replaces caller knowledge.

      • I recently had to call 000 (Australia’s version of 911, as i’m sure you know).

        I have a blocked number, i.e. when I call a mobile phone, or anyone with caller ID, they can’t see my outgoing number.

        Can the emergency services bypass this and see my number? I was wondering afterwards. I assumed they could. I gave them my address anyway.

    • Whoa! That’s a great tip, thank you — I’d assumed just the opposite, because I didn’t know about E-911 tracking and did know about cell phone towers and tracking people’s location using their cell phones. Trackable landlines changes things, yes.

  6. I’m a volunteer first responder…and please please please know how to do CPR, and specifically know how firm it has to be. Take the thought of poentially hurting your LOVED one out of your mind, properly done CPR will break a few ribs and you’re hurting them more by doing it wrong

    • I had to take infant CPR before I could take my babies home from the NICU. I was so surprised by how hard you had to push. I actually hard a really hard time with it at first because I was so afraid I was going to hurt the baby (i.e. CPR dummy). Our instructor just kept telling me it was better to break their rib and save their life then to spare their ribs and watch them die.

    • that sounds like an awesome guest post, jenniferP. i know from experience that very few people A.) give Hard Enough chest compressions, or B.) give them Fast Enough. twice per second, two inches deep is *incredibly* hard and fast.

      • and so exhausting! For my first aid certificate exam you had to do two minutes of CPR on a dummy, being monitored the whole time to make sure your strength and speed were appropriate. My supervisor asked why I was whispering to myself – I told him I’d heard about a study that compared pop song tempos to CPR rhythms, and that the closest match was the Bee Gees song Stayin’ Alive, so I kept reciting the chorus.

        • What a hilarious coincidence! Now I want to take a CPR class, just so I can have an awesome medical reason for singing “Stayin Alive” while practicing how to keep someone alive. 🙂

        • Another song that apparently works in terms of BPM is “Another One Bites the Dust.”

          As you can imagine, they, uh, they don’t recommend that one.

      • I took CPR training as required by the school district where I teach. It’s mandatory for all fine arts teachers as we often have to travel with our students. We discovered that the perfect song for doing chest compressions at the required rate is “Mustang Sally”. No joke-if you’re keeping the beat on the chest while you sing and compress, it comes out right.

    • It’s also important to remember that people die when you do nothing…anything is better than nothing. My husband has worked on compressions only CPR research and community outreach for years. I know a lot of people have taken CPR training or are certified but (hopefully) don’t have reason to practice and are scared that they’ll do something wrong. This is why compressions only CPR is sweeping the nation! Push hard and fast between the nipples, 100 beats per minute. Easy peasy, saves lives.
      (And has a great PSA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5hP4DIBCEE)

    • Some quick tips–1) make sure the person is on a hard surface–if they are on a soft bed it will absorb off your efforts so put something hard underneath. 2) Be as high over the person as possible, get a stool if necessary–your arms should be perpendicular to their body 3) The chest should be pushed down 2 in, at a fast pace–sing along to “Saturday Night Fever” 4)If you don’t get tired, you’re doing it wrong. Make sure to switch out if someone is around to help (you should have made sure to get help right away!)

      • Great, now if I ever have to give CPR, I’m going to be humming Saturday Night Fever and everyone else in the room is going to be like, “what the fuck is wrong with you?” Lol. Good tips, though, thanks!

      • Also forget any hospital drama you’ve ever seen. Especially the part where they make a big show of bending their arms as they “push” down. They do that to avoid putting any actual pressure on the person. You need to keep your arms as straight as you can to make sure you’re actually pushing down.

      • Caveat: DO NOT move anyone who might maybe have a spinal injury. Ever. Ever.

        • If they’re not breathing and don’t have a pulse, moving them and making the spinal injury worse so you can actually do CPR is better than doing nothing.

        • This is not always the case. I am a 911 dispatcher and one instance where you would move them if necessary is to maintain the airway…we practice “life over limb”, if they’re not breathing, they have no chance of surviving.

  7. Thank you for writing this! I think I might go over this with my husband. He has anxiety so going over this stuff might be good.

  8. OMG – a Queensland Ambulance vehicle! Off topic, QAS is the 4th largest ambulance service in the world 🙂

    Back on topic; here’s a video that gives a good idea of what happens when you call 000 (or 911, or 999…)

  9. Thank you so much for posting this. I taught in China a few years ago and when I got to my class about making phone calls this was the call I discussed with them. It is good to know the information I have them works with what you are saying and it is terrific to have this as a reference to go back to.

  10. Great info, thanks! I have to maintain CPR and First Aid certification for my job, and I’ve kept the manual I got, with pages bookmarked (child choking, child not breathing, etc.) If you have an infant, I suggest taking an infant CPR class. It’s quite different from adult and child CPR.

    Possibly having to call 911 one day is one of the several reasons I have for keeping a landline The other two are that I will not be my son’s answering service on my mobile and he is not going to have his own phone for quite a while, and landlines (corded!) still work even if the power is out. (I probably would have written the Worst Case Scenario guides…)

  11. Thank you for this post! I never thought about the importance of knowing my address. This is one of my nightmares because I live in Israel, so I’d have to handle this call in Hebrew, but this at least makes me feel a little more prepared. Now I need to go review the emergency number… it’s 100 or 101 but I really wish it was just 911!

    If you haven’t seen this, it’s one of the best and most memorable CPR demonstrations I’ve seen (not to mention the funniest): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vXPo7lNYzk

    • LOVE the video, Maya. so.funny. and helpful! and yer welcome for the post! as for yer particular situation, maybe keep important info somewhere visible in yer home? that can be super helpful during an emergency, so you can just relay, rather than have to think.

  12. Wow, thanks so much! I feel like a complete idiot on the address front. We have very detailed information for the people who will stay with our child when we go to the hospital to deliver another baby any day now, and I realize I have the doctor’s address and phone number, the child’s weight information, several emergency back up phone numbers, etc, BUT NOT OUR HOME ADDRESS on it. DUH!

    So thank you!

    My single 911 experience did not end well. A very healthy, trim, 51 year old man and father of three children still at home dropped in front of us (and his wife) on a local greenway. Fortunately, we had one cell phone but we almost had not brought it that day, and so we called 911. My husband did chest compressions as directed, and I think EMT was there in 5 minutes, but it was too late. We saw his obituary in the paper 2 days later. Truthfully, I think he was basically dead as soon as he went down. So awful.

    But now, anytime I am out in an open nature area like that, whether by myself or with my child, I always have my cell with me just in case. If I forget it, I will go back home and get it.

    Anyway, thank you!

    • oh, anonmom – i’m so sorry for yer experience on the greenway. so tragic. it’s definitely the case that, sometimes? there’s Simply Nothing You Can Do to change the outcome. it sounds like everyone did the best they could and, even though it seems like it wouldn’t – that counts for *a lot*.

  13. This is very good information for any kind of emergency helpline, or any situation where you’re speaking to a professional who is trying to help you with a stressful, scary or emergency situation.

    Especially numbers 3 and 4. You might not understand why they’re asking those questions or how it’ll help but you have to believe they do want to help, are trying to help as quickly as possible and if they’re asking you questions it is never going to be to waste your time, it’s because they need to know the answer to get you the help you need.

  14. As a former emergency call handler (animal not human but still emergency) I would add to point 1, to be aware of how easy your location is to find.

    I don’t know if its the same in the US but if you call from a mobile phone in the UK you won’t always get through to your local dispatcher. Plus sat navs here don’t always recognise postcodes. So it’s worth noting if you live in a village with the same name as one in another county, or if you live in an estate where every road has the same name (ST Johns Court/Way/Avenue/Road).

    We have a little map with our address on it just in case the call handlers can’t find the address. Explaining which roads to look for has been helpful in the past.

  15. As a former EMD (thats Emergency Medical Dispatcher) I LOVE this post.
    Calling 911 can be really scary, almost as scary as whats happened to make the call necessary.
    One point that was touched on was making sure your kids know how to dial 911 and relay your address, but don’t stop there!
    Make sure your kids know all that other stuff too: Listen and follow directions, try to stay calm, answer questions and know that help is on the way.
    I think most folks probably assume that if their 7-year-old calls 911 that the dispatcher will get the address from them, try to find out whats going on and then keep the child company until help arrives.
    That is part of what we do, but we also make every effort to EMD (which is the fancy term for all those protocols that were mentioned in the original post) the call regardless of the age of the caller.
    The best part? Kids listen! They don’t flip out, they don’t revert back to what they saw on “ER” and they don’t get belligerent when the response takes more than 2 minutes. Id take a responsive 11-year-old over a panicked 30-year-old any day of the week!

    One of the most successful CPR calls I ever had was an 8-year-old who called because his 13-year-old sister choked on something and stopped breathing. The kids were home alone and this 8-year-old was able to tell us his address, perform excellent CPR and keep his sister alive for the 18 minutes it took to make that rural response.

  16. 111 Emergency operator in New Zealand. God I wish people understood that we don’t ask all-of-the-questions just for fun, we need to know this stuff. Keep writing things like this, there needs to be more education around what to do when you need emergency services.

  17. Great article! I’ve had the misfortune of calling 911 three times (kid ran out of a parking garage covered in blood at now-husband and I, family friend had a stroke while on the phone with my mom, and grandmother had stroke), but I never would have thought about the address finding tips. The first time I called, the dispatcher had trouble finding us and my husband had to run after the ambulance after he saw it turn the wrong way on the street we were on. Each time everybody was fine, but I’ve become the family 911 caller because I go super clinical until a crisis is over.

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