There are few phone calls that are more important than the one you make to the emergency services. It’s normal to feel nervous when dialing (or texting) 911 — not least because you’re potentially in the middle of a life-or-death situation, but also because you feel under pressure to get everything exactly right. Here are five things to remember if you ever have to make that call.
1. Check the scene. Your own safety is the first thing to consider. “It’s happened many times that well-meaning bystanders rush in to help and end up another casualty,” cautions Stephani Laing, a paramedic and CEO of Elite Emergency Response, a firm teaching first aid and providing emergency medical staff for private events. “To assess a scene for safety, 911 callers should remember that no one expects them to place themselves in danger. They should pause to take a few deep breaths and check for smoke, fire, downed wires, strange smells, and unusual sounds. If they feel a sense of danger, they shouldn’t get any closer.”
Once you’re sure the scene is safe and you’ve called 911, make it secure for the emergency medical services (EMS) who are about to arrive by “turning on an outside light so we can see the house number, putting any dogs away, and unlocking the door,” Laing says. She adds that if you forget to do this in the moment, the dispatcher on the phone will likely remind you.
2. Don’t panic. Trite but true. You will be so much more useful to the dispatcher, the EMS, and whoever you’ve called 911 for if you can stay as calm as possible. “Obviously 911 involves an emergency and people can be very upset,” acknowledges Captain Paul Bender, an emergency dispatcher with the Columbus Division of Fire Emergency Medical Services in Ohio. “A person will call and not answer questions, or just start saying, ‘Send someone, send someone now.’” Being too panicked to think straight can cause delays in getting help to you, he warns, since the dispatcher has a list of questions to get through to assess the situation, and unclear answers can cause confusion that leads them to send the wrong kind of service (i.e., sending the fire trucks when you need an ambulance.) Take some deep breaths and focus on the job at hand.
3. Give your location. Your location is one of the two most important details you need to give the dispatcher, Captain Bender tells us. “The caller should provide the best information they can,” he emphasizes. “This will expedite response. We do need to know where we are going.” If your experience of 911 calls comes from TV and movies, you might be picturing dispatchers looking at a screen with a flashing red dot that shows your exact location. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works IRL. While the popularity of cell phones has made it easier to call emergency services than ever before (and reduced the number of people who die at the scene), it’s actually harder to pinpoint a cell phone’s location compared to a good old fashioned landline. “People forget that it’s not like TV and most EMS services can’t get a location from a phone — and even if they do have the capability, it takes longer than one commercial break,” Laing says.
That’s why you need to be as precise and accurate as possible when giving your location. The dispatcher will ask for the address twice to make sure it’s right, explains Mike Gnitecki, a paramedic and firefighter in Longview, TX. “It’s also very helpful to provide a house description to the dispatcher. If there is an extra person who can stand outside to flag down the ambulance, that usually speeds our response even more because we can see the ‘flagger’ and go right to them, instead of having to slow down and look at house numbers on mailboxes.” That said, it’s important not to panic if you’re lost or somewhere unfamiliar: Dispatchers are trained to ask questions that can help the EMS find you, Captain Bender assures us.
4. Give as much medical information as you can. This is the other most important information the dispatcher needs. Captain Bender explains that dispatchers mainly want to know the specific reason for the call, like someone has stopped breathing, fallen badly, or they’re showing signs of a heart attack or stroke. They might also ask about existing medical conditions, what happened right before the emergency, and if this has happened to them before, Laing adds. A more extensive medical history is more important to the EMS workers than the dispatchers. Jen Lyon, a paramedic and director of Who Will Rescue the Rescuer, a documentary about the mental health challenges facing first responders, says that if the dispatcher on the call says it’s safe to leave the patient, you can find any medical information while waiting for the EMS: “Ideally they would like to have the patient’s main medical history and medications, last surgical procedures, and what hospital the patient is usually treated at.”
Make sure the information you’re giving is accurate. “It is imperative to give accurate information to the dispatcher, because they relay the notes to us before we arrive at the residence,” Gnitecki explains. “For example, if you tell the dispatcher that the patient overdosed on amitriptyline [an antidepressant] they will type that into the notes that we can see as we respond. We can then quickly verify our treatment protocol while en route and prepare to administer a potentially life-saving medication. If you instead tell the dispatcher that you have no idea why the patient is seizing, even if you know that they overdosed on amitriptyline, we cannot prepare accordingly.”
5. Listen to the dispatcher. Once the dispatcher has assessed the initial information you’ve given them, they may ask you more questions while the EMS are on their way. “Resources and responders are typically dispatched almost immediately, but the dispatcher will stay on the line with the caller to gather more information for the responders while they are en route,” Laing says. How long you’re on the phone for varies, she explains. “Someone passing by a situation that strikes them as odd who calls 911 might be off the phone in under two minutes. Someone calling 911 for a loved one they’re with will likely be on the phone until help arrives.” If you aren’t sure of your location, the dispatcher might stay on the line to help guide the EMS responders to you, Captain Bender says: “In this case, the dispatcher may listen for the sound of the siren and relay that information to the crew.”
In addition, dispatchers often coach callers through basic but essential first aid, especially CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). “There is a national push to have dispatchers provide CPR instructions,” Captain Bender explains. “Research has shown that the faster CPR is initiated, the better the chance of survival in cardiac arrest. Dispatches will encourage someone to start CPR immediately and coach the bystander until first responders arrive.” Suddenly feeling like you’re in charge of someone else’s life is daunting, but if you can remember these five things and work with the medical professionals who are there to do their jobs, you’re doing the best you can in a tough situation.
(Photo via Getty)