An emergency can happen at any time and any place, and a child's ability to call 9-1-1 can save lives. Children being able to recognize an emergency and understand the appropriate time to call 9-1-1 is paramount. Although the child caller may not comprehend the severity of the situation, they can play an essential role in an emergency response. In honor of national safety month, our former first responders put together vital information that a child should know before calling 9-1-1.
Why it’s important
Often, and unfortunately, child callers don’t know the general information needed to facilitate a response to send help. Instances exist where the adult is in need of emergency assistance, could be assisting with the incident, or is not present at all – and the child is the only one able to call for help.
How telecommunicators adjust
Telecommunications professionals are on the other end of the line ready to gather important information necessary to coordinate an emergency response to incidents where help is needed. Extracting the information from a caller during a crisis presents stressful challenges, however, acquiring the information from a child caller can present different challenges. By understanding basic childhood development, telecommunicators can adapt their typical approach of questioning and information gathering techniques to be more effective when faced with the unique characteristics associated with child callers. Simply meeting them where they are intellectually helps in having child callers answer questions and follow serious life-saving pre-arrival instructions. Telecommunicators have specialized training to remain on the line with callers, especially child callers, to ensure the emergency responders arrive at the appropriate location and in the event, anything changes with the situation that needs to be updated or communicated to the responders.
What children should know when calling 911
Parents and guardians can play an active role in preparing their children for emergency situations by preparing them for the information they will need to know and defining what an emergency situation is.
Children need to know and communicate basic information about themselves and their family: their name, household members names, home address, and parent/guardian phone number. We recommend printing out our worksheet, filling it out with your child, and hanging it somewhere where they can easily view it.
The most important piece of information a dispatcher needs is the location of the emergency. In case a situation arises outside of the home, a child should be able to determine and communicate the location they are at. If your child frequents different locations, for example babysitters or family members' houses, be sure to teach them that address as well. And if possible, hang another copy of the worksheet at that location. It’s also important to teach children how to figure out where they are, if they are in an unfamiliar location. First, they need to get to a safe space – if they are inside they should remain there. To determine location, they can look for pieces of mail, street signs, landmarks, room names, and branded signs.
In addition to knowing the basic details of their typical surroundings – names, phone numbers, and addresses – it is also important for them to know more specific details about their family. For example, if anyone in the home has medical conditions, and what they are – knowing this information can be of great help to EMS responders as it lets them know what they can prepare for. Also, it’s always good to disclose if there are any animals in the house. The more information that you can give to responders, the better the chances are for a smooth emergency response. That said, it is okay if children don't know the answer to the dispatcher’s questions and it’s okay to say “I don’t know”.
Out of the appx. 240 million emergency calls made annually, over 80% received are from mobile devices. If a child needs to dial 9-1-1, they need to understand how to either access the emergency dial pad from the lock screen, or unlock your mobile device and find the dial pad. With that, children should also be comfortable operating the landline at any homes they frequent.
Once they know how to call 9-1-1 and the information the 9-1-1 dispatcher will need, they’ll need to understand when it is appropriate to dial the emergency line. There are many instances where it could be necessary to dial 9-1-1 – if someone is badly injured or if they're in immediate danger. Discussing these scenarios and doing practice calls will help prepare them if an unfortunate situation ever happens.
Other ways to help
From the beginning, parents/guardians teach their children ‘stranger danger’, in hopes to prevent anything bad from happening. While this is undoubtedly a good lesson to teach, it’s important to note that 9-1-1 dispatchers, and first responders, are there to help. Additionally, it’s necessary to discuss with children that the telecommunicator may ask personal questions about them – name, age, etc. – and it’s okay to answer those questions when they’ve called 9-1-1. Building a trust between your children and your community's first responders from the beginning can only help if an emergency situation were to arise.
Building off of that, another way to reinforce that public safety professionals are there to help is to avoid making jokes or threats regarding first responders. For example, saying something like ‘if you're bad the police are going to take you away and punish you’ can instill a negative narrative towards law enforcement – making it less likely for them to trust the first responders in a time of need, possibly putting themselves in more danger.
While discussing when to call 9-1-1, it’s also important to talk about when it isn’t appropriate to dial the emergency line. Prank calling 9-1-1, in most cities, is considered a crime as it’s important the emergency number remains for emergencies only. That said, if 9-1-1 is ever called and there is no emergency, it’s recommended to stay on the line and communicate to the dispatcher that the call was by mistake. Otherwise, it will be assumed there was an emergency, and they will send out first responders.
For more resources to aid you in this conversation, discover what your community has to offer. Your local dispatch center, law enforcement agency, fire department, etc. might have programs or events where they discuss these topics in more detail.
It’s important to have conversations with children of all ages about how to call 9-1-1, when to do it, and what they can expect. We created a sheet to help aid in this preparation. Print this out, fill it out with your children, and then put it in a safe place that anyone in the home knows where to find it. We hope your family can feel more prepared for a situation that hopefully nobody will experience.