Emergencies don't happen very often. But when they do, you want to get help fast. No one wants to spend time looking up the phone number. That's why 911 was created — to make it easy. In the United States and Canada, dialing 911 on your phone is the fastest way you can get help for yourself or someone else.
Not too many years ago, people had to find the right phone number in an emergency. If there was a fire, people phoned the fire department. If there was a crime, people called the police. If someone got hurt, an ambulance had to be called. Finding a number for any of these emergency workers could be very confusing — especially if a person was in a hurry or in an unfamiliar area.
Fire, Police, or Ambulance
Today, it's as simple as dialing 911. With those three numbers, you can reach the fire department, the police, or an ambulance. When you call 911, an emergency operator — called a dispatcher — immediately connects you to the person you need.
Other countries may use another three numbers. In Great Britain, for instance, it's 999. If you're not sure which emergency number is used in your area, check your phonebook.
When to Call 911
The only time you should call 911 is if a person is badly hurt or in danger right now!
- Can you call 911 if there's been a car accident? Yes!
- Should you call if you see a crime, like someone hurting someone else or breaking into a person's house? Of course!
- What if someone suddenly seems very sick and is having a hard time speaking or breathing or turns blue? Call right away!
- What if someone collapses or passes out? Absolutely call!
- What if someone's house is on fire? Definitely call!
Sometimes people are confused about when to call an emergency number like 911. These are examples of when not to call:
- you can't find your favorite toy or your homework from last night
- your cat got into a fight with another cat
- your brother or your friend dares you to call
- you have a nasty hangnail
NEVER call 911 as a joke or just to see what might happen. When the emergency dispatcher has to take the time to talk to people who don't have a real emergency, other people who call and do need help right away might have to wait. And when you call 911, the operator can tell where you're calling from.
Before an emergency happens, talk to your parents or another adult about when you should call 911. If you're not sure whether there's a real emergency and there are no adults around, it's a good idea to make the call. You could save someone's life.
911 in an Emergency
The best way to handle an emergency is to be prepared before one happens. In the United States and Canada, the dispatcher will know where you are calling from because of a system called "E 911," which means your address is known to the dispatcher right away, just by you calling 911.
It's still a good idea to know the address and phone number you are calling from in case the call is being made from a place outside of the U.S. or Canada, or in case you are calling from a cell phone. The 911 operator must know exactly where you are and how to reach you. The police, firefighters, or ambulance crew need to know where you are to provide help for the emergency.
It's important to make sure you are safe before you call 911. If your home is on fire, for instance, leave the house before calling 911. You can always call from someone else's house or from a cell phone.
You may feel scared or nervous if you have to call 911. That's OK. The emergency operators who answer the phone talk to a lot of people, including adults, who are nervous or worried when they call. And they are used to talking to kids. Just stay as calm as you can. If you talk too fast, the operator may have trouble understanding what's wrong and what kind of help you need.
Speak slowly and clearly when you explain what's happening. The 911 emergency dispatcher may ask you what, where, and who questions such as these:
- What is the emergency?
- What happened?
- Where are you?
- Who needs help?
- Who is with you?
- Are you safe where you are?
Don't Hang Up!
If you do have to call 911 in an emergency, be sure to stay on the phone. Do not hang up until the 911 operator tells you it's OK to do so. That way, you can be sure that the operator has all the information to get help to you fast!
Many fast-thinking kids have called 911 to get help for someone. One 9-year-old boy called 911 when his mother was having a seizure. Help arrived and his mother is fine now.
Even animals have been heroes by dialing 911. A dog named Faith dialed 911 when her owner (who's in a wheelchair) fell and needed help. Faith is a service dog, which means she was specially trained to help someone who's handicapped. She had been taught to use a speed-dial function on the phone in case of emergency. That's one good pup!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013