One of the challenges you have as a parent is to help your child
acquire the skills to work through whatever obstacles life
presents. Teaching your child how to use 911 in an emergency could
be one of the simplest - and most important - lessons you'll
Talking About 911 With Your Child
Not that many years ago, there was a separate telephone number
for each type of emergency agency. For a fire, you called the fire
department number. For a crime, you called the police. For a
medical situation, you phoned the ambulance or doctor.
In 1968, the U.S. government worked with the phone company to
establish 911 as a central number for all types of emergencies. An
emergency dispatch operator quickly takes information from the
caller and puts the caller in direct contact with whatever
emergency personnel are needed, thus making response time
According to the National Emergency Number Association, 911
covers nearly all of the population of the United States. Check
your phone book to ensure that 911 is the emergency number you
should use in your area.
Everyone needs to know about calling 911 in an emergency. But
children in particular need specifics about what an emergency is.
Asking your child, "What would you do if we had a
in our house?" or "What would you do if you saw someone
trying to break in?" gives you a chance to discuss what
constitutes an emergency and what should be done if one occurs.
Role playing is an especially good way to address various emergency
scenarios and give your child the confidence he or she will need to
For younger children, it might also help to talk about who the
emergency workers are in your community - police officers,
firefighters, paramedics, doctors, nurses, and so on - and what
kinds of things they do to help people who are in trouble. This
will paint a clear picture for your little one of not only what
types of emergencies can occur, but also who can help.
When to Call 911
Learning what is an emergency goes hand in hand with learning
what isn't. A fire, an intruder in the home, an unconscious
family member - these are all things that would require a call to
911. A skinned knee, a stolen bicycle, or a lost pet wouldn't.
Still, teach your child that if ever in doubt and there's no
adult around to ask to always make the call. It's much better
to be safe than sorry.
Make sure your child understands that calling 911 as a joke is a
crime in many places. In some cities, officials estimate that as
much as 75% of the calls made to 911 are nonemergency calls. These
are not all pranks. Some people accidentally push the emergency
button on their cell phones. Others don't realize that 911 is
for true emergencies only. That means it's not for such things
as a flat tire or even about a theft that occurred the week
Stress to your child that whenever an unnecessary call is made
to 911, it can delay a response to someone who actually needs it.
Most areas now have what is called enhanced 911, which enables a
call to be traced to the location from which it was made. So if
someone dials 911 as a prank, emergency personnel could be
dispatched directly to that location. Not only could this mean life
or death for someone having a real emergency on the other side of
town, it also means that it's very likely the prank caller will
be caught and punished.
How to Use 911
Although most 911 calls are now traced, it's still important
for your child to have your street address and phone number
memorized. Your child will need to give that information to the
operator as a confirmation so time isn't lost sending emergency
workers to the wrong address.
Make sure your child knows that even though he or she
shouldn't give personal information to strangers, it's OK
to trust the 911 operator. Walk him or her through some of the
questions the operator will ask, including:
Where are you calling from? (Where do you live?)
- What type of emergency is this?
- Who needs help?
- Is the person awake and breathing?
Explain to your child that it's OK to be frightened in an
emergency, but that it's important to stay calm, speak slowly
and clearly, and give as much detail to the 911 operator as
possible. If your child is old enough to understand, also explain
that the emergency dispatcher may give first-aid instructions
before emergency workers arrive at the scene.
Make it clear that your child should
hang up until the person on the other end says it's OK,
otherwise important instructions or information could be
More Safety Tips
Here are some additional safety tips to keep in mind:
- Always refer to the emergency number as
"nine-one-one" not "nine-eleven." In an
emergency, your child may not know how to dial the number
correctly because of trying to find the "eleven" button
on the phone.
- Make sure your house number is clearly visible from the
street so that police, fire, or ambulance workers can easily
locate your address.
- If you live in an apartment building, make sure your child
knows the apartment number and floor you live on.
- Keep a list of
emergency phone numbers
handy near each phone for your children or babysitter. This
should include police, fire, and medical numbers (this is
particularly important if you live in one of the few areas where
911 is not in effect), as well as a number where you can be
reached, such as your cell phone, pager, or work number. In the
confusion of an emergency, calling from a printed list is simpler
than looking in the phone book or figuring out which is the
correct speed-dial number. The list should also include known
allergies, especially to any medication, medical conditions, and
- If you have special circumstances in your house, such as an
elderly grandparent or a person with a heart condition,
living in your home, prepare your child by discussing specific
emergencies that could occur and how to spot them.
- Keep a
handy and make sure your child and
know where to find it. When your child is old enough, teach him
or her basic first aid.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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