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June 2000  -  Volume 3  -  Issue 4

Guidelines for Using 911
By Captain Bud Gundersen

The 911 emergency telephone system is in place in many US cities to assist citizens with police, medical or fire emergencies. Check to see that your area has 911. If not, create a list of the appropriate numbers and place lists near each phone. It should be realized that non-emergency calls to the 911 system or any emergency phone number can create delays in handling other very serious emergencies that require immediate attention. The following are guidelines for the proper use of the 911 system for fire and medical emergencies for most major cities. Learn the system in your area. Learn about the emergency systems wherever you may travel.

Do not call 911 for non-emergency transportation, use taxi cabs or call a private ambulance listed under Ambulance in your local telephone directory.

Examples of non-emergency situations are:

  • minor illness or injury not requiring immediate help:
    • Flu/common cold.
    • Chronic (ongoing) aches and pain.
    • Minor cuts.
    • Broken fingers or toes.
  • Emotional upsets.
  • Routine transportation to medical offices, clinics and hospitals.

Remember, these are general guidelines - if there is any doubt, do not hesitate to call the paramedics.

Examples of life-threatening emergencies are:

  • Breathing difficulty/shortness of breath or breathing has stopped.
  • Choking (can't talk or breathe).
  • Constant chest pain. (In and adult, lasting longer than two minutes).
  • Uncontrollable bleeding or large blood loss.
  • Drowning.
  • Electrocution.
  • Drug overdose or poisoning.
  • Gunshot wounds or stabbing.
  • Vomiting blood.
  • Fainting or unconsciousness.
  • Convulsions or seizures.
  • Severe allergic reaction (difficulty breathing/ unresponsive).
  • Major burns (white or charred skin; blisters and redness over large area).
  • Someone who will not wake up, even when you shake them.
  • Severe injuries from:
    • Traffic accidents
    • Head injury
    • Significant falls
    • Physical entrapment

Critical Information the Dispatcher Needs to Know:

  • Identify your call as a medical or fire emergency.
  • What is the emergency? What is wrong?
  • Where is the emergency? Give the address, include the building number, apartment number, and nearest cross street. The name of the building is also helpful. Although in many areas the dispatcher will electronically receive the address and the address and telephone number of the caller, however it is best to verify it again with the dispatcher.
  • Who needs help? Age and number of people.
  • Are they conscious? Yes or no.
  • Are they breathing? Yes or no.

Wait for the fire department to hang up before you do. The dispatcher may also provide you with critical pre-arrival instructions, such as CPR or the heimlich maneuver.

Remain calm and give direct answers to the questions asked. Speak slowly and clearly. You will be asked additional questions so the dispatcher can send the right type of help. All questions are important.

How You Can Help Before the Fire Department Arrives:

  • Assure the patient that help is on the way.
  • Keep the phone line clear after the 911 call is made.
  • Direct someone to wait out front to meet the ambulance and lead the way.
  • Wave a flashlight or turn on flashers of a car or porch light if it's dark or visibility is poor.
  • Secure pets, especially dogs, in a separate area.
  • Have a visible address, easily readable from the street.
  • Gather or make a list of medication that the patient is using and give to emergency personnel.
  • Consider finding an interpreter if the patient does not speak English.
  • Start First Aid:
    • Apply direct pressure to the wound if the victim is bleeding.
    • Perform the heimlich maneuver if a choking victim can't breathe or talk
    • Begin CPR if the victim has no pulse and has stopped breathing.

Understanding what happens when a 911 call is placed will help the system run more efficiently and will bring you the emergency medical service you need in the shortest possible time.

Source: "Children's Safety Zone, Using 911" - web address found at:

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