Emergencies happen when we least expect them, and they require
fast thinking and action. But different emergencies call for
different approaches. Here are some things to know so you'll be
When to Call 911
A 911 emergency is a situation in which someone needs immediate
help because he or she is injured or in immediate danger. So if
you've had a car accident and someone is hurt, obviously
you'll call 911. But if your car just broke down and you need a
tow truck, you'll need to call a towing service (or, better
still, your parents!).
Call 911 if there's a fire, if someone has had an accident,
or if you see a crime being committed. Don't hesitate to call
911 if a friend has taken drugs or done something else that's
life threatening. You may be afraid you'll get your friend in
trouble, but calling could mean the difference between life and
When you call 911, the emergency dispatch operator will probably
questions such as:
is the emergency?" or "
are you?" or "
do you live?"
needs help?" or "
is with you?"
What to Say
Although you may feel a sense of panic when faced with an
emergency, try your best to stay in control. The operator needs the
answers to specific questions to decide what type of emergency
workers should be sent and where to send them. Give the operator
all the relevant information you can about what the emergency is
and how it happened. If someone is unconscious or has stopped
breathing, the 911 operator may give you instructions for immediate
help that you can provide, such as administering CPR or relieving
choking if you've been trained.
You know that you need to stay calm and speak slowly and clearly
so that the 911 operator can understand you. But did you know you
should stay on the phone and not hang up until the operator tells
you it is OK? That way, you can be sure that the operator has all
the information that's needed to get help to you fast. It's
easy to assume that operators can trace where a call is coming
from, but that's not always the case.
If you dial 911 by mistake - you hit the wrong button on your
phone, for example - don't just hang up. In areas where
dispatchers can trace the call, you could find a fire truck or
police car in your driveway. Tell the operator what happened so
that he or she knows that there is no real emergency.
If you're ever in doubt and no one is around to ask,
it's better to call 911 and let the operator decide if it's
a real emergency than to take the chance that someone who needs
help doesn't get it quickly.
In situations where you're in charge, such as babysitting or
caring for someone with a health condition, you need to be prepared
in advance for emergencies. Here are some things you can do so you
can respond quickly if something happens:
- Make sure there's a list of emergency numbers near each
telephone in the house, and keep a copy of the list in the car.
Most areas in the United States are covered by 911 service. But
if you live somewhere that does not have 911 service, have
numbers for the police department, the fire department, and
emergency medical services handy. If you have a cell phone,
it's a good idea to program important numbers into your
- Keep on hand numbers for adults you should call. If
you're babysitting, make sure you have the number and
location where the child's parents will be and, if possible,
a cell phone or pager number. If it's a true emergency - a
child you're caring for has stopped breathing, for example
- always call 911 first and then call the parent.
- If you're looking after someone with a health condition,
know when the person needs to take any medications - particularly
medicines for breathing or heart problems. Have the person's
insurance information on hand in case you need to rush to the
hospital. It's a good idea to keep all this information
written down near the phone so that you can find it quickly if
you need it.
- Make sure the home or building you're in has working
- Make sure your family or the family you're caring for has
a fire escape plan and that children know their outdoor meeting
point in case of an emergency.
- Take a first-aid class to learn CPR so you'll be prepared
to help someone in an emergency.
- Make sure the poison control center phone number is handy.
Most areas have toll-free numbers available.
- Keep a first-aid kit in the house and know how to use
When Someone's Been Hurt
If someone's been in an accident and is unconscious,
don't try to move the person - he or she may have a neck or
other spine injury. Call 911 or get help first (or have someone
else get help while you take care of the injured person). If the
person is bleeding, put pressure on the wound with a cloth or piece
of clothing to slow the blood flow. Don't try to clean the
wound, though, as it may do more damage. Wait with the person until
Don't rush to help someone if the area isn't safe - if
the victim is in the middle of a road, for example, or if you have
to put yourself in danger to get to him or her. Make sure it's
safe before you try to get to the person and help.
If a person who's been injured is conscious, he or she may
still be at risk of internal injury or concussion. In some
accidents, people seem fine at first but end up having internal
injuries. So it's a good idea to call 911 or take the
person to the emergency department to get checked out. If
someone is disoriented, feels sick, or has a headache, he or she
may have a concussion or other head injury.
For more tips on how to be prepared to help someone in an
emergency, read these instruction sheets:
If you live in an area prone to natural disasters, such as
tornadoes or earthquakes, know what to do in an emergency. You can
find out what to do in different situations by visiting the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention's Emergency Preparedness and
Response site (see the Resources tab).
If the weather is bad, listen to the radio or TV so you can be
aware of any plans to evacuate your area.
Dealing with an emergency can be scary for anyone. You can take
away some of the fear factor by making sure you and other people in
your house are prepared and know what to do if an emergency does
Updated and reviewed by:
Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: October 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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