Last week, my oldest daughter, who has multiple special needs, got sick at camp. I couldn’t get her, because my car was in the shop. It was every parent’s fear: my child needed help, and I was helpless.
Fortunately, it wasn’t a life-threatening emergency, and camp staff drove her home. But I wondered what I’d have done if her illness had been more severe, or if her camp advisors couldn’t reach me because cell phone service was unavailable.
I take so much technology for granted. I trust that my cell phone will have service everywhere, to the point I don’t even have a landline. Yet my phone’s signal strength is weak even in my home. I trust that I will have a working vehicle when I need it, though I obviously shouldn’t do that. I trust that when I dial 911, someone will answer within a few seconds. But in March, a glitch in T-Mobile phones caused so many phantom calls to 911 operators in Dallas that real calls had to wait up to a half hour to get through. Two deaths were blamed
on the glitch.
Before you have to call 911, you can prepare in case the call doesn’t go through, or just to make the call more effective.
Know first aid and CPR. The American Red Cross
and American Heart Association
offer classes, including online ones. The American Heart Association’s online hands-only CPR course takes less than two minutes, and as long as you can remember earworms like “Stayin’ Alive” or “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, you’ll remember how to perform hands-only CPR
. Knowing first aid will also help you better identify the health problem you’re calling 911 about.
Make an emergency plan
and practice it. For example, does your family have two escape routes from each room in case of fire
? Do family members know how to get out and how to evacuate other family members if necessary?
Get the main numbers for police, firefighters, and other emergency responders. Then post them near your landline or program them into your phone. (Since I have young, curious children, I’ve got poison control on speed dial.) Don’t program 911 into your phone, however. Everybody except Homer Simpson
knows that number, and auto-dialers make accidental calls more likely. Dispatchers may send emergency responders to accidental calls.
“Until proven otherwise, every call to 911 is viewed as an emergency,” one dispatcher and emergency responder wrote
If you’re prepared, you’re more likely to know the difference between a 911-worthy call and one that’s not a real emergency. For example
, a woman in Washington, D.C. called 911 about a theft from her car that was parked outside her home. She complained because it took four 911 calls and about 90 minutes for police to show up. Yet the perpetrator had left before she called, and even the victim admitted it was not “the crime of the century.” Could she have called the non-emergency police line?
Call 911 when the emergency calls for an immediate response, like a medical emergency that basic first aid can’t handle, a crime in progress, a car accident with major damage, or an uncontrolled fire.
Stay on the line
, even if you get a recorded message saying “an operator will be with you shortly.” If you hang up and call again, you’ll go back to the end of the line.
The Rochester, N.Y., Fire Protection District has more tips for calling 911 here
When you call 911, it’s usually one of the worst times of your life. Yet you can take steps that might give responders more time, like knowing first aid. And by developing and practicing safety plans, you can help protect your family even if assistance can’t get to you right away.
Melissa Rivera is a jack-of-all-trades who is master of none. She has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years.