How to teach your kid to call 911

Knowing how to reach first responders is a skill that could save a life.

Photo: iStockphoto

The last thing Tracey Smith* recalls before blacking out on her bathroom floor is the sound of her three-year-old’s voice. “I can remember my son asking me something, but I didn’t have the ability to respond,” says the Alberta mom of two. “And then I went out.”

Smith often suffers from migraines. Usually they lay her up on the couch. This time was different.

What happened next shocked her. As she lay unconscious, her three-year-old looked for her iPhone, found it, and went to work. “My records show he called a paramedic friend first, but she did not answer,” says Smith. “He then tried his dad but his phone is hard to hear at work so he didn’t answer.” The preschooler then launched FaceTime to call his grandparents, and was able to point the phone at his mom so they could see what was happening. They then called for help.

Luckily for Smith, everything turned out okay. But her story got me thinking about what my own three year old would do if anything ever happened to me.

An impromptu quiz revealed that she thinks my phone number is “six” (it’s not), that we live in West Kelowna (we don’t), and that she doesn’t know our address. She knows how to unlock my iPhone—but only to get at Snapchat.

So to help her learn about 911, I’ve been talking about what constitutes an emergency, who first responders are, and what number to call if mommy were ever “asleep and won’t wake up.” I’ve also downloaded a free app called DialSafe Pro, which uses games to help little kids memorize their address, learn how to call 911 and practice talking to dispatchers in mock conversations.

At what age should kids be taught to about calling 911? It depends on the individual child. But according to Cam Ritzer, chairman of the Paramedics Association of Manitoba, you should start when they are old enough to recognize if someone has been in an accident, and can follow verbal directions.

That said, knowing how to call 911 is only half the battle if you live in a household without a home phone. As of 2014, nearly one in four Canadian households used cellphones exclusively, according to the CRTC. Meanwhile, the percentage of households subscribing to landlines continues to decline ever year.

Without a landline, says Ritzer, you either need to teach your child how to unlock your phone, or to access its SOS button, which lets users bypass the passcode so they can call 911. This can be complicated, but with practice—Ritzer suggests doing it on airplane mode—they’ll soon learn.

The other complicating factor when calling 911 from cellphones is that, unlike with a landline they don’t always allow service providers to pinpoint your exact location. This can be problematic if your child doesn’t know their address, or forgets under pressure. “Most provinces have some type of geolocating technology, so they will be able to locate the co-ordinates of your phone based on (nearby) cellphone towers,” Ritzer says. That won’t get first responders to your front door, but it will get them close, and from there the dispatcher will ask the caller for cues like the colour of their house, whether they have a dog barking in the front yard, or if they can go to the window and wave.

“911 operators are such highly trained professionals that they are very good and very creative in finding different ways to get that information,” Ritzer says. “The minute they notice that it’s a kid that’s called and don’t hear parents in the background, the first thing they are going to do is dispatch the first, closest emergency responder.” That means it could be a police officer, a firefighter or a paramedic who shows up. “Have pictures of have what a frontline first responder looks like,” he says. “Teach your kids that police, paramedics and firefighters are there to help them.”

Think it’s time to teach your kid about how to handle an emergency? Follow these tips and tricks, courtesy of the Paramadics Association of Manitoba.

  • Most experts suggest teaching kids how to call 911 at around four, but a case can be made for starting earlier – like when one parent is frequently home alone, or has a medical condition.
  • Try to keep your phone somewhere your child can find it, and make sure it’s always charged.
  • Teach your child the easiest way to unlock the phone to get to your keypad, or else access your phone’s “Emergency” shortcut.
  • Arm your child with the crucial basic information a dispatcher will need to know, such as your address.
  • Role-play 911 calls with your kids, and prep them for the questions they will likely hear from a dispatcher, like: “911, what is your emergency?”
  • Talk to your child about helping first responders to access your home, and remind them that if they ever need to call 911, not to hang up.
  • Consider posting a cheat sheet in an easy-to find place with information like pictures of first responders, the numbers 9-1-1, and—if your child can read or recognize their letters—your address.
  • Have someone outside the home whom children can call instead of 911, like a grandparent, who knows your address and other important information like where you may keep a spare key.
  • If you have an alarm system, check to see if it has a shortcut that connects users straight to emergency services.
  • Consider getting a landline. It’s easier for kids to find and use, and landlines make it easier for dispatchers to send help the right address.

Through all of this, remember to discuss with your children that 911 is only to be used in emergencies, and to never practice in real time.

*Name has been changed.

Read more:
This teen called 911 when her parents “forced her” on a cottage vacation
The importance of having a family emergency plan
Why I had to call 911 for my child

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