Woman wearing mask holds phone to her ear.
Photo by Engin Akyurt, Unsplash.

(A companion piece on training kids to use 9-1-1 will appear shortly.

By Gordon Williams 

September is National Preparedness Month, and one step in preparing for disaster is knowing when and how to call for help. It turns out there is a lot more to ringing up 9-1-1 than just hitting three keys on your telephone keypad.  

When is a call to 9-1-1 the right call? 

For guidance, listen to the National Emergency Number Assn. (NENA) — the trade group for everything related to 9-1-1. “An emergency,” says the NENA website, “is any serious situation where a law enforcement officer, fire fighter, or emergency medical help is needed right away.”  

What if you aren’t sure it is a true emergency? When in doubt make the call, says that guidance from NENA. The operators who take 9-1-1 calls are trained to determine quickly whether help is needed and which service to dispatch.   

A 9-1-1 Refresher from the Spokane Valley Fire Department lists these specific situations when you should call 9-1-1: 

  • If you see someone hurt in an accident.  
  • If someone is having a heart attack, seizure or is struggling to breathe. 
  • If you smell smoke or see a fire. 
  • If a smoke or carbide monoxide alarm is ringing long and loud, not short “chirps.” 
  • If you see a crime being committed — someone being assaulted or robbed, or a home being burglarized. 

Not every case of Covid-19 requires an emergency response. The federal government’s National 911 Program advises calling for help if the patient has difficulty breathing, is experiencing chest pains, is non-responsive or shows bluish lips or face.  

Obviously, you would call for help if any of these things are happening to you — fire in your home, someone seriously ill or passed out, smoke or CO2 alarm sounding, flames from a wildfire drawing close.

On the other hand, a missing dog is worrisome but does not warrant a 9-1-1 call. Nor does being locked out of your home, unless there is food cooking on the stove or there is an untended child inside. If wildfires are prevalent, agencies may advise not calling about smoke in outlying communities. 

Think before calling. 

Take a few moments to collect your thoughts before calling 9-1-1. Lives could depend on how well you describe the emergency. “Staying calm can be one of the most difficult, yet most important, things you can do when calling 9-1-1,” says the NENA guidance. “It is very important that you stay as calm as possible and answer all the questions the 9-1-1 call taker asks.”   

If you are reporting an accident or illness, you will be asked if the patient is breathing and whether he or she is responsive. If it is a fire, you will be asked if anyone is trapped, whether there are pets in the home and whether there are hazards that responders should know about, such as propane tanks or boxes of ammunition.  

If you are calling from home, confirm your address with the call taker. If you are away from home, in unfamiliar territory, make sure you can provide the call taker with an address. To establish your location, says NENA, “look for landmarks, cross street signs and buildings.” Enhanced 9-1-1, which is in use throughout much of the U.S., will give the dispatcher your phone number and approximate location but providing an exact address will get emergency units to the scene faster. 

You can text an emergency message, using “911” as the address and giving the nature of the emergency and the address. Dispatchers prefer you call by phone, so you are there to answer questions. Stay on the line until the call taker finishes asking questions and ends the call.  

Be Prepared for Response. 

Part of any preparedness plan is making sure your address is clearly posted at the driveway entrance and on the house itself. If you have an emergency, you want responders to be able to find you with a minimum of delay. The numbers should be illuminated or reflective, so they are clearly visible at night. Don’t rely on house numbers that are painted on your mailbox. “Mailboxes are not always at the entrance to the driveway and usually are not clearly marked on both sides,” says NENA.  

Make a Mistake? 

Finally, if you do call 9-1-1, don’t hang up the phone even if you dialed it by mistake. Stay on the line until the call is answered. Then explain the call was a mistake and there is no emergency. If you don’t stay on the line, the dispatcher will call you back to check on your well-being. Worse still, the dispatcher may send police or fire units racing to your home to check out your condition.  

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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