When To Call 911

What Happens When You Call

We tend to think of 911 as a monolithic emergency system, but it actually comprises hundreds of local or state services that range from wildly sophisticated to surprisingly spartan. A state-of-the-art network, dubbed "enhanced 911," is available in about 60 percent of the country and gives the dispatcher who answers the phone the capability of seeing the number you're calling from, the address you're calling from (unless you've moved recently or you're dialing from a cell phone), and, in some cases, access to a mapping program that red-flags road closures or traffic delays. The basic service, or 911, simply gets you into your local police or ambulance number. If you live in the 20 percent of the country that doesn't have 911 service, you'll need to dial a different local emergency number (which often taps into local police), so check your specific town for details.

Whatever number you dial, well-trained help is at hand before a rescue team even arrives. The dispatcher who answers your call is the first critical member of the emergency team, so listen -- and respond -- to her questions carefully, even though you're anxious. For example, if you're calling to report that your son is choking, the dispatcher is likely to ask you a series of scripted questions. What does he look like now? Did you see him put something in his mouth? And the queries may be intentionally redundant: Is your child breathing? Is he conscious? "For the frantic parent, it seems unnecessary, but in a crisis, many of us misstate information," says James M. Atkins, M.D., a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. The dispatcher is assessing the problem so she can tell you what to do while help is on the way.

And though it's natural for you to want to hang up and rush back to your child, many dispatchers encourage parents to stay on the line. They'll want to hear if the child is getting better or worse. They'll also walk you through some important instructions, such as turning on the porch light to make your house easier to spot, or coach you in crucial procedures, such as how to clear an airway, says Bob Waddell, EMS systems specialist for the Emergency Medical Services for Children National Resource Center, a not-for-profit group based in Washington, D.C. At this point, dispatchers often speak slowly. "They're trained to speak methodically when they hear you panicking in order to calm you down," says Waddell. You'll be better able to help your child if you're not hysterical.

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