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What to Do in an Emergency

Emergencies happen when we least expect them, and they need fast thinking and action. Here are some things to know to help you be ready.

When to Call 911

A 911 emergency is when someone needs help right away because of an injury or an immediate danger. For example, call 911 if:

  • there's a fire
  • someone is unconscious after an accident, drinking too much, or an overdose of pills or drugs
  • someone has trouble breathing, like during an asthma flare-up or seizure
  • someone is choking
  • you see a crime happening, like a break-in, mugging, etc.
  • you are in or see a serious car accident

When you call 911, the emergency dispatch operator will ask what, where, and who questions such as:

  • "What is the emergency?" or "What happened?"
  • "Where are you?" or "Where do you live?"
  • "Who needs help?" or "Who is with you?"

You may feel panicky, but try to stay in control. The operator needs the answers to these questions to decide what type of emergency workers to send and where to send them.

Give the operator all the information you can about what the emergency is and how it happened. If someone is unconscious or has stopped breathing, the 911 operator may instruct you on ways to help, such as giving CPR if you're trained to do so.

Other Things to Know About 911

You know to stay calm and speak slowly and clearly so that the 911 operator can understand you. But you also need to stay on the phone and not hang up until the operator says it's OK. That way, you can be sure that the operator has all the information needed to get help to you fast. TV and the movies make it seem like operators can trace where a call is coming from, but that's not always the case.

Emergency dispatchers stress that you should never call 911 for your pets, for information, or to do routine stuff like pay a traffic ticket. Rules about 911 are strict because a non-emergency call could delay sending emergency services where they're really needed. This is why dialing 911 as a prank is a crime in many places.

If you're ever in doubt and no one is around to ask, it's better to call 911 and let the operator decide if it's a real emergency.

When Someone's Been Hurt

Don't try to move a person who is unconscious after having an accident. He or she may have a neck or other spine injury. Call 911 or get help. If the person is not breathing and you know CPR, have someone else get help while you take care of the injured person.

If the person is bleeding, put pressure on the wound with a cloth or piece of clothing to slow the blood flow. Don't try to clean the wound, though, as this could do more damage. Wait with the person until help arrives.

Don't rush to help someone if you have to put yourself in danger — for example, if the victim is in the middle of a road. Make sure it's safe before you try to get to the person and help.

An injured person who is conscious could still be at risk for an internal injury. In some emergencies, people seem fine at first but end up having problems later on. So it's a good idea to call 911 or take the person to the emergency department to get checked out. Someone who is disoriented, feels sick, or has a headache might have a concussion or other head injury.

Safety Tips

If you're babysitting or caring for someone with a health condition, you need to be ready for emergencies. These tips that can help you respond right away if something happens:

  • Make sure there's a list of emergency numbers. Keep one posted somewhere it's easy to see (like on the refrigerator) and near each telephone in the house, if there are landlines. Program important numbers into your phone.
  • Keep on hand numbers for adults you should call. If you're babysitting, make sure you have the number and location where the child's parents will be. For a true emergency — a child you're caring for has stopped breathing, for example — always call 911 first and then call the parent.
  • If you're looking after someone with a health condition, know when the person needs to take any medicines. Have the person's insurance information on hand in case you need to rush to the hospital. It's a good idea to keep all this information written down so that you can find it quickly if you need it.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Oct 3, 2018

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