The 4-1-1 on 9-1-1: How to Make an Effective Emergency Call

Emergency CallThe other day, a friend and I found ourselves in a conversation about instructions we leave the babysitter.

Yes, girls, my life really is this exciting.  In fact, I recently splurged on a new beige cardigan.

I mentioned that I always write down our home address and major cross streets, figuring that if the babysitter has to call 9-1-1, she is unlikely to know our address and–in the stress of the moment–might not be able to give useful directions.

After complimenting me on my cardigan, my friend commented that the address thing was a good idea and that it had never occurred to her.

I took a moment to preen about the fact that I clearly am the Most Insightful Mother Ever (and that the cardigan was marked down by 70 percent).  But, upon later reflection, I realized that my strategy had not been field-tested.  For real advice on how to prepare for a 9-1-1 call that one prays never is needed, I had to go to an expert.

As luck would have it, my lovely cousin, Nicole, works as an emergency services dispacher in her town in Illinois.  She’s a new mama herself, so I knew I could count on her to give a professional’s feedback infused with an understanding of how a mother might feel in the heat of a child safety emergency.  I’m sharing her excellent advice, which I hope you never have cause to use. [hr]

A 9-1-1 call is a structured interaction designed to get the right emergency responders to you as quickly as possible.  To achieve this outcome, the operator will conduct herself in a very specific way.  The better you conform to the 9-1-1 style, the sooner you will get the emergency help you need.

Each agency or jurisdiction has its own protocol regarding how calls are answered.  Your call might be answered with any of the following:

  • “9-1-1 Emergency”
  • “[City] 9-1-1”
  • “9-1-1, where is your emergency?”

Your first statement should be short and to-the-point: “I think my child’s arm is broken.” “My child is having an allergic reaction.” “My child’s leg is cut, and I cannot stop the bleeding.”  You might want to metion what your child was doing when the accident happened, but do not get off the subject.  [hr]

The operator will begin asking questions.  The first question is likely to be your location. Location is probably the single most important piece of information for you to provide, because even if the operator does not know what the problem is, she can start emergency units in your direction.  The operator will verify the address at least twice.  This practice ensures that emergency units are sent to the correct place.  It’s not because the operator is not listening to you or is not taking good notes.

Be specific.  When asked where you are, do not say, “San Antonio.”   Many people are under the impression that 9-1-1 can pinpoint your exact location. This is only true to a degree. The best indicator of where you are is still you. With so many 9-1-1 calls coming from cell phones rather than landlines, it’s important that you do everything you can to pinpoint your location. If you are in an unfamiliar area, use street names and any nearby landmarks.

If the emergency occurred while you were driving and you have no idea where you are, tell the operator where you were leaving from and where you were heading.

With cell phones, the cell phone tower may route your call to a 9-1-1 center for a town you are not actually in. If the operator recognizes this during your call, you may be transferred to the proper agency. Remain patient. You are being transferred so that the closest agency can respond to you.

After the operator ascertains your needs and location, she will dispatch the appropriate units.  At this point in the call, there may be some silence on the phone line. The operator did not abandon you; she likely is talking on the dispatch radio. [hr]

After units have been dispatched, the operator might remain on the line with you to gather more information. Examples include:

  • How the injury/emergency happened;
  • Your name and phone number;
  • Your child’s name, date of birth, medical history, medications, etc.

After you’ve responded to the operator’s questions, you can ask for pre-arrival instructions to know what to do while you wait for “real” help. If they aren’t offered and you want them, you need to ask.

Protocols vary across jurisdictions.   In your area, the operator might disconnect at this time.[hr]

A few points to remember throughout the call:

Remain Calm.

According to Nicole, 9-1-1 operators know you are not calling because you are having an awesome day. It’s in the best interest of your child that you remain calm and rational. Children tend to feed off of your emotions, so you need to keep your cool. You can let all of your emotions out after the crisis is over.

Do not yell at or become belligerent with the operator.  Anger does not help you or your child, and it makes the call become argumentative. Your yelling will not make the emergency units show up any faster.

Answer The Actual Questions, and Be Concise.

The specific information the operator needs may not seem like the most important detail to you.  Some questions may even seem odd, but they elicit important information the operator needs.  The operator’s questions do not delay the response time of emergency services. Likely, the operator on your call is dispatching units while she is gathering information from you.

Focus on the Call. 

If you are in a loud area or your child is crying, you may have to step away from your child so the operator can communicate with you. The operator will get you back to your child as soon as possible.

Try to keep your conversation limited to the 9-1-1 operator. If you are talking to other people in the room, it makes it more difficult for the operator to get the information she needs and to get you the help you require.

Understand the Process. 

Do not mistake an operator’s monotone voice for lack of compassion. Operators are trained to remain calm. Your operator does care about your situation but has a job to do and must stay on task.  Do not be alarmed if the line goes silent.

Waiting for emergency services to show up can feel like an eternity.  A single minute may feel like 20 to you.   The operator knows a quick response is essential and is doing her part to get help to you. [hr]

I hope you never need to use Nicole’s advice.  But, if you do find yourself making an emergency call, these suggestions will help you get the help you need as quickly as possible.

With these tips and a little luck, I won’t ever have to use that beige cardigan as a tourniquet.

Katy is a San Antonio native who spent seven years on the East Coast. She is back home now, married to her sweetheart, rearing her children Claudia (5) and Thomas (3), and practicing tax law.


  1. I often have a babysitter, and make sure they know as much as I do on our home info! But this post has me also making sure I over prepare myself for the call if I have to make it. I have been spending a lot of time of this subject, the one of emergencies as a close friend recently had a bad one! Hers involved her kids and there was 911 calls and an ER visit and mostly because everyone was under prepared. I have been reading Keeping Your Kids Out of the Emergency Room by Chris Johnson MD, and he’s got some awesome tips on getting a head start by knowing as much as you can to prevent that trip as far as kids go, and things to know once you have to go there. I recommend it, it’s at least a helpful resource!

  2. Such good info – especially the part about making sure your sitter has the address! We are currently in the process of getting a respite provider, and one of the things I like – is that they give you a binder with all your emergency/children’s information in it for the provider to have at their fingertips.

    All that’s missing is a pic of the cardigan! (I’m curious now!) 😉

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