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What's Your Emergency?

A Cheat Sheet for Teaching Kids How to Call 9-1-1

By R. Justin FreemanPublished 2 months ago 23 min read

There’s little more bracing than the thought of your child being in a situation in which they’re forced to call 9-1-1, but avoiding the thought will only ensure ill-preparedness if the time ever comes. The act can be daunting even for some adults, so it’s important to give kids a framework to work through in what will assuredly be a high-stress situation. Today I’d like to walk you through teaching kids how to call 9-1-1 so you can walk them through it.

I write as a former municipal police officer for a mid-sized city; I bring a lot of opinions from my side of the radio, but anything I write on my own would be hobbled by my limited perspective. So I’ve enlisted the help of veteran 9-1-1 dispatcher Janice Hall McKee, who worked the phones and radios for 33 years in California before recently retiring. Janice brings a wealth of experience of directly working with children on 9-1-1 calls.

A couple of caveats before Janice and I dive in:

- Emergency response protocols are notoriously fragmented across the United States, and the situation in other countries will be even further inflected. Please take this information in broad strokes and then do some homework on anything that might be different in your local context.

- This piece is written with the assumption that 9-1-1 is indeed your local emergency number, and that calling 9-1-1 will give you access to law enforcement, the fire department, and paramedics/ambulance services. This isn’t the case in every country, so adjust your instruction as pertains to your situation. But if you’re in the United States or Canada, it’s almost certainly applicable; 96% of the geographic United States and virtually all of Canada is covered by some type of 9-1-1 service.

With those things in mind, I’ll begin with a few points for the adults in the room, from my perspective as a police officer.

A few notes specifically for parents and guardians

Teach the number as “nine-one-one.”

It is not “nine-eleven,” it is not “ninety-one-one.” When your kids hear references at school or in pop culture to the emergency number, it will be “nine-one-one,” almost without fail, so there’s no sense confusing the issue and making your child think there are two different numbers. Also, referring to the digits individually will help younger children with dialing. You want to avoid a situation where a toddler is looking for an ’11’ key on a phone in an emergency.

Make sure the physical address numbers on your residence are up to snuff.

One of the most maddening things as an emergency responder is running code (that is, lights and sirens) and finding address numbers missing. You’re looking for 75 Main Street, and you pass 67, then two houses with no visible address numbers. Then you see 79 whizz by, squall tires coming to a stop, and swear through your windshield while you make a three point turn to double back.

This is completely avoidable.

Make sure your house (or mailbox, or whatever other fixture if your house is set off the road) displays address numbers which are clearly visible from the road or street you live on, both day and night. This process is not expensive and would take you no more than ten minutes to install start to finish. There is absolutely no good reason not to do it.

There might be a carrot…

Your local government may have a program to provide reflective signage with your address numerics on it. If so, take advantage. They’ll have ensured the numbers are legible from a long distance, and it’s what your local emergency responders are most used to looking for. They may not be pretty, in your opinion. Use them anyway. They’re a utility. You probably haven’t bedazzled your water main or knitted a little sweater for your electric meter, so don’t get all prissy about this.

…but there is very likely a stick.

Your local government probably has an ordinance, bylaw, or other enforcement means detailing your responsibility to display adequate address numbers. Not only does that mean a law enforcement officer could conceivably write you a citation for a violation, it also means that if you were in violation and it can be demonstrated emergency response was delayed for someone as a result, you could possibly open yourself up to civil liability.

Now, I recognize before you protest this is an extreme circumstance, but it’s a silly risk to take when you can avoid it with a ten dollar spend at Ye Olde Hardware Store.

It’s a courtesy to your neighbors.

If you live at 75 Main Street with prominent numbers, emergency personnel will know to slow down if they’re headed to one of your neighbors’ houses and see your numbers. Hopefully your neighbors have visible numbers as well. If not, though, you might save an ambulance, police cruiser, or fire truck from having to stop and double back. When seconds count, this tiny courtesy can change the outcome of a call.

Give your address numbers the glance test.

Have you ever been on foot near a busy highway and seen how large the lettering on road signs actually is?

There is a big geeky rabbit hole of math and science when it comes to highway signage that all essentially boils down to ‘reading going fast = see from far = PLAIN + BIG + BRIGHT.’ Apply this same principle to your address numbers. If you can’t read – not just see, read – the numbers at a glance going the speed limit on the road you live on at all hours, something is wrong. They’re either too small, too fancy, or too poorly lit. Fix them.

Again, don’t get pretentious about this. Don’t get a fancy, loopy font. Don’t get some weird color or pattern that isn’t a direct contrast with what they’re affixed to. And for the love of everything holy, don’t install spelled-out numbers (“One seventy seven”) in a script font. Nobody is going to rave about how cuuuuute your numbers are. Nobody’s inviting you to a house decor symposium because you got overwrought laser cut address signage from an Etsy seller.

Please, I’m begging you, just get plain old boring vanilla normal-people numbers that human beings, with their noted lack of telescopic vision, can readily see – and then make sure they’re lit at night. You needn’t overthink lighting, there are a thousand options for low wattage lighting these days. It doesn’t need to be high lumen floodlighting, just enough to make the numbers visible and draw attention to them.

Hone your own geography chops first.

Become a cardinals fan.

Easy there, I can hear the feathers ruffling from here. I mean cardinal directions. If you don’t know them where you live, learn them right now so you can teach your kids. How do you get to your location from whatever arbitrary point you want to name? There’s no guarantee you’ll be in a familiar location, or one with an established civic address.

“Turn left” or “turn right” is worthless if you’re on with a 9-1-1 operator – it doesn’t matter how you normally turn there. You don’t know where responding units will be coming from. “Go west” is objective and impossible to misunderstand.

Go the extra mile. (Or kilometer.)

An actual mile, that is. As a police officer, I found the sense of distance some people had was wildly inaccurate. It sometimes seemed any distance could have been anywhere from half to two times what was claimed by a witness. Every suspect was about six feet tall unless they were damn near four or eight, and every far-flung distance was either a round hundred yards or a mile.

You can do better, I promise. Get a good sense of this so you can organically mention it in conversation with your kids. What does a hundred feet look like? A hundred yards/meters? A mile/kilometer? If your kids get a standard in their head they can compare spacing in a critical incident to, they can more reliably communicate with operators and emergency personnel.

Now, let’s bring Janice into the discussion on to how to present this to your kids:

Guidelines for calling

“The basic answer is if there is a severe illness or injury, a risk to anyone’s life or an immediate risk to property calling 9-1-1 will always be warranted,” Janice says. “It is better safe than sorry – dispatchers will not be upset at a person calling thinking that they truly have an emergency when it is not.”

That doesn’t mean the instruction you give your kids will be so cut and dry. Framing the discussion when you’re teaching kids how to call 9-1-1 will take some parenting finesse from you, because you have to strike a balance. One one side, you want to ensure your kids are aware of the fact that 9-1-1 is a special number reserved for the most dire of emergencies. It is not fodder for pranks, revenge, or idle curiosity. On the other, though, you don’t want kids so in their own heads about the process they hesitate to call when the situation warrants it.

Let’s incorporate Janice’s guidelines to get the conversation started:

As you’re teaching kids how to call 9-1-1, the basic two part algorithm for deciding whether to call is this:

Is there a fact or threat of someone being hurt, or is property being stolen/damaged, right now?

Do you need a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic to come right now to fix it?

If both of those conditions are met, it’s highly likely a 9-1-1 call is appropriate. While you can’t be comprehensive, it’s helpful to come up with a few scenarios to demonstrate the difference, customized for your child’s level of understanding. Should they call:

If they see someone breaking into a house? Yes. Property is being damaged right now, and a police officer is needed right now.

If they discover their bicycle has been stolen? No. While we don’t dismiss how distressing this would be for your child, there is not a threat right now. This situation is best handled by filing a report online or at a police station.

If someone collapses and won’t respond? Yes. Nobody expects a child to diagnose the cause or severity of someone’s medical condition. A paramedic is needed right now to treat this person.

If their pet is lost or injured? No. Again, while obviously distressing, there is nothing for a first responder to do here. Calls to your vet clinic or animal control, as the situation dictates, are your first port of call. In the case of a lost pet, many places have local Facebook groups dedicated to such.

If they see smoke in a structure, or an unattended brush or grass fire? Yes. If a planned outdoor burn has been flagged to the fire department, the 9-1-1 operator will likely be aware and can reassure a caller. Otherwise, these cases represent a present threat, and firefighters are needed right now to intervene.

Stress the importance of making themselves safe first.

When you’re teaching kids how to call 9-1-1, they should always be told to retreat to a place of safety first before calling. If there’s a house fire, they should get well clear of the structure first and call outside or at a neighbor’s house. If they witness a severe vehicle accident, they should ensure they’re not in danger themselves should a fire break out or a chain reaction pileup occurs. I’ll obviously never be able to exhaust examples, but the general principle is the same.

Younger children should, in the vast majority of cases, defer the responsibility of calling to an adult on scene. If an incident occurs and your child knows for a fact an adult on scene is calling 9-1-1, there’s no reason to monopolize another 9-1-1 call-taker. However, if there’s any question about that (and obviously if they’re alone), they should ensure a call gets placed. In that instance, they can be quickly dismissed if dispatch has already been advised.

Prepare your kids for predictable problems.

“If there is an issue in the home, say a person who is chronically ill or you are in a high crime area, it is important to talk to your kids about what to do,” Janice advises. I would concur. If there is a higher-than-average likelihood of your child needing to make a 9-1-1 call about a particular issue, make sure you walk through and teach that hypothetical specifically.

Calmness is key.

Place a lot of emphasis on the need to be calm when talking on the phone with 9-1-1. If your child can’t be understood, there will be a delay in getting appropriate help rolling. It would be a net positive time wise if your child stopped for a few seconds, took a few deep breaths, and calmed themselves before calling. Every second someone is hyperventilating, screaming, or crying on the phone is another second police officers, paramedics, and/or firefighters are either coming ill-prepared, coming to the wrong place, or just not coming.

It was endlessly frustrating to me when I got comments from dispatch saying, “Unknown disturbance – someone screaming and crying on other end of line, call taker unable to get further information.” Maybe they can get good location data to send to me, maybe not. As a responding unit, I had no idea in those circumstances whether someone’s goldfish died or a mass shooting was happening.

Again, nobody expects a young child to dispassionately report an emergency scene to a 9-1-1 operator – but giving them something to mentally fall back to will put them ahead of most of their peers.

Location, Location, Location

One of the most important things to stress when teaching kids how to call 9-1-1 is making sure they have means of knowing, or figuring out, where they are – and then have the capability of communicating that on the phone. Yes, as a police officer I always wanted the maximum amount of information about what I was going to find on scene. But failing literally everything else, if I had a precise place to go, I could figure things out when I got there.

It’s the ‘in the area’ calls that got messy. I occasionally got dispatched with something along the lines of, “General disturbance. Caller on cell phone, doesn’t know where he is. Pings to vicinity of Main and First. Says he thinks he sees a white house.” Scene cut to me, driving around the block, wildly swinging my spotlight into alleys looking for either 1) a disturbance of unknown severity or 2) a clueless looking fellow holding a cell phone.

This level of oblivion is exponentially more forgivable when it’s a child, but work early to ensure your kids are able to help themselves here.

“Of course, children have trouble communicating their location,” Janice says. “Most children, especially young ones, may not have their address memorized.” In these cases, she says a 9-1-1 operator may have to resort to sending a child to check pieces of mail for an address, describing nearby businesses, or reading license plates from adjacent driveways so their registration information can be pulled up. These means are obviously time-killers, so get your address committed to your child’s memory as soon as possible.

Civic addresses are king.

The absolute best information for a 9-1-1 operator (and, by proxy, emergency personnel) is a precise, full street address: 512 South Spruce Street, for example. It gets rid of any ambiguities – there’s no question about what side of the street it’s on or whose jurisdiction it’s in. Additionally, in an instance in which your child is calling about an address not your own, a precise civic address will likely provide the dispatcher with call history for that address, which could be useful for responding units to know.

Geography and orienteering are huge helps.

Make it fun and contextual. For younger children, this will probably have to be a simple, “Every house has a number, every street has a name, put them together to get an address.” In addition to memorizing their address, if applicable, they need to know their apartment floor. Of course, in the midst of this kids need to have the reminder these things are protected information only meant for trusted people, which includes 9-1-1 operators.

For older ones, start introducing more information as it applies to your situation:

What sides of the street are odd/even numbered houses on?

What are the other three streets on our block?

What determines how address numbers increase?

What are your cardinal directions?

“Can’t get there from here…”

Outside of cities and towns, things get a little more complicated. Older kids can be taught about mile markers and numbered exits on highways, but your kids’ best friend when you’re far flung is probably Google Maps. Give them a bit of instruction on how to long press on the map to drop a pin and see the latitude and longitude. A 9-1-1 operator should be able to convert that in such a way responding units can ably navigate with it in an emergency.

Now knowing how to prepare, kids should learn a bit about whom they would talk to:

Try to demystify 9-1-1 operators.

Emphasize to your kids 9-1-1 operators like Janice are normal people who talk to lots of kids and want to help.

“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to discuss the use of 9-1-1 when children have called in,” Joyce says. “I tell them how proud I am and how important it is that they know how to do it.”

A 9-1-1 operator isn’t an unfeeling authority. They’re on your child’s team – and yours. They want the absolute best outcome for your child in an emergency and will do everything in their power to get them there. Ensure you place them in a circle of trust. Tell your children, ‘Unlike other adults you might talk to on the phone, it’s okay to give the 9-1-1 operator personal information like your name and address. There’s a difference someone calling you, and you calling 9-1-1. You know exactly who you’re talking to, and you can trust them.’

When you’re in the midst of teaching kids how to call 9-1-1, it might be helpful to give them a peek of the other end of the line in advance with a YouTube video:

The 9-1-1 operator should control the conversation.

Once kids call 9-1-1, they need to listen carefully and give the operator the information they’re asking for to the best of their ability. The phrase most people bring to mind – “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” – may or may not actually be how your local call center answers the phone. It could be a number of things:

“9-1-1, police, fire, or medical?”

“9-1-1, what’s the location of your emergency?”

“(Name of jurisdiction) Emergency, how can I help you?”

Regardless, the most important things for your child to communicate upfront are 1) what is happening, and 2) exactly where. Once personnel are dispatched, the operator will ask follow-up questions in order to update responding units. Kids should listen carefully and give answers as they’re able without speculating.

In a critical incident, dispatchers for my department sometimes pushed through 9-1-1 callers’ quotes verbatim to my in-car computer in the interest of getting raw information to me as quickly as possible. This was generally helpful, but it introduces the danger of erroneous assumptions if the caller is editorializing – so kids should be taught to stick to the facts as much as possible and not guess at things.

Your kids shouldn’t hang up until explicitly told to.

In the case of a minor calling 9-1-1, the operator will remain on the line with them until it’s verified a responding unit has made direct contact with them. If a minor hangs up or the line otherwise fails before that, the operator will attempt to call them back immediately. When you’re teaching kids how to call 9-1-1, instruct them to stay on the line until the operator explicitly says, “It’s okay to hang up now.” That would only happen after the operator directly communicates with the responding unit(s), typically by radio, and verbally hands control of the situation over to them.

Instruct kids to ALWAYS follow through with any 9-1-1 call.

When teaching kids how to call 9-1-1, stress the importance of completing any 9-1-1 call they initiate. No matter what, whether the situation resolved itself, they were messing around with the keypad and accidentally transmitted the call, or something else, they should always proceed to talk to an operator. If they hang up after the call has gone through, an operator will attempt to call back. If the operator can’t make contact, depending on local policies, emergency personnel (typically law enforcement, but not always) will likely be dispatched to investigate.

“Absolutely, please stay on the phone when calling 9-1-1,” Janice says. “Regardless of whether it was an accident or you made the call in good faith and it turns out not to be an emergency. Please do not hang up. Dispatchers are required to spend what could be a considerable amount of time re-contacting the caller to determine the problem if there is one.”

“If we are unable, we must spend an even more considerable amount of time trying to track down where the call came from and then send units. It is a huge burden and an unnecessary waste of time given the fact that it would take minutes for a person to explain. It was an accident and dispatchers DO. NOT. CARE. We only care that we can put this call ‘to bed.'”

As a patrol officer, when there were 9-1-1 hang-ups from my beat – that is, my patrol zone – which couldn’t be sorted out by the 9-1-1 operator, he or she would create an “Abandoned 9-1-1” call for service and dispatch me. I would have to respond to the address in question, find the person who made the call, and investigate what the issue was. The reason for this is the fact there are circumstances when someone calls 9-1-1, but either cannot openly speak or find their call interrupted by an abuser or attacker. In the case of an errant call someone just wanted to pretend they hadn’t made, it meant a lot of wasted time and resource that could have been spared by their just staying on the phone for twenty more seconds.

Read older children the prank/revenge call Riot Act.

Make sure your kids are aware of the gravity of a 9-1-1 call. Operators one hundred percent do not have time to be asked if their refrigerator is running or be told Hugh Jass is missing. And even more seriously, innocent people can be put in harm’s way if a disgruntled kid uses police to harass someone via false reports.

If phone lines are blacked out with calls, subsequent ones go into a holding queue. You can imagine how stressful it would be if you were watching a loved one in crisis and were sitting on hold with 9-1-1; now imagine one of the calls boxing you out of getting help was a crank or fabricated call.

Most jurisdictions have ‘abuse of 9-1-1’ legislation enacted. I’ll tell you as an adult that, absent some personally inconceivable circumstance, nobody’s going to jail here for a one-off prank by a minor. In my experience, it would take repeated willful incidents before enforcement action was pursued by a police supervisor, and in my years on patrol I was only aware of it being threatened to a caller once – an adult who devoted her evening to an attempt at harassing a neighbor.

However, it would probably suit your purposes with older kids to just leave the illegality hanging in the air without further comment.

A patently false report is another story, though. As a police officer, if I made a traffic stop or detention based on a report I subsequently learned was invented whole cloth for revenge, I’d be seeing red. Police encounters go beyond the bounds of inconvenience and are high stakes for everyone. If your child is of an age of responsibility – not majority, responsibility – and makes a report like this, depending on the officers and circumstances at hand, there may be a report taken with a possible referral to a juvenile office.

Customize the threatened repercussions however you please, but make it crystal clear that no matter the circumstance, no matter who dares them or why they do it, willful 911 calls absent an emergency are absolutely unacceptable.

Don’t leave anything about the process of teaching kids how to call 9-1-1 to chance.

With younger children, walk them through how to actually place the 9-1-1 call, step by step. This should include instruction on how to call from a locked phone (even if they can access your phone – they may be pressed into using a stranger’s phone in an emergency). If possible, try to show the process on both an Android and iPhone (but ensure you don’t place a call yourself in the process – watch a video tutorial first if needed). If you have a landline, ensure your child knows how to call from that phone as well.

In terms of physically practicing, take care in how you do it. An unplugged landline phone is perfectly safe to practice 9-1-1 dialing on. However, an old cell phone is not.

Teaching kids how to call 9-1-1 shouldn't involve unsupervised use of a cell phone.A huge number of calls to 9-1-1 by children are due to their playing with deactivated phones – which are mandated by law to still be capable of dialing 9-1-1.

“The vast majority of calls from children are not emergencies,” Janice explains. “Most have been given a disconnected cell to play with, and federal law requires all cell phones, regardless of whether they have a SIM card or service with a carrier, must have the ability to dial 9-1-1. These are especially difficult because there is no location tracing ability.”

So don’t pull the SIM card out of an old phone and use it as a toy – it could result in an unexpected knock on your door:

“If a child refuses to put an adult on the phone we must send someone out,” Janice continues. “This happens in about 10% of these cases.”

Also, do some homework in advance on text capability. There are some things that vary with 9-1-1 protocol from place to place, one of which is text message compatibility. Can you send a text message to 9-1-1 where you live? The FCC encourages, but does not require, call centers to accept them. Being able to tell your kids definitively whether they can or cannot do this would be helpful. While it’s always better to place a voice call for a number of reasons, there are obviously occasions when silence would be of the essence.

It’s our hope every second you spend teaching kids how to call 9-1-1 is a complete waste. While she was always happy to help, Janice certainly never took joy in hearing a child’s panicked voice on the phone. Hopefully your children never need to leverage the information here. But it’s foolhardy to count on that, no matter how safe you think your lives or environments are.

Parenting is about giving your kids the tools they need to handle life’s challenges capably. Now more than ever, that takes a community. Making sure your kids can summon the right help at the right time should absolutely be part of their toolbox.

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About the Creator

R. Justin Freeman

Rambler slowing so my kids can start rambling. Done everything from cattle ranching to law enforcement, clergy work to retail, writing to living in Canada's far north. I try to let all of it inform my writing, but current focus is SaHDs.

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