When To Call 911 And When Not To Call 911

California’s 9-1-1 system received more than twenty-eight million calls in 2016 — more than 78,000 calls per day — and 80% of these calls were from wireless devices.  9-1-1 research shows that up to 40% of the total 911 calls in California are either unintentional or not true emergencies.  Knowing when NOT to call 911 is just as important as knowing when and how to call 911.

First things first:  Know when to call 911.  An emergency is any situation that requires immediate assistance from the police, fire department or ambulance. Examples include:

• A fire

• A crime, especially if in progress

• A car crash, especially if someone is injured

• A medical emergency, especially symptoms that require immediate medical attention

If you’re not sure whether the situation is a true emergency, officials recommend calling 911 and letting the call-taker determine whether you need emergency help.  If you do call 911, be prepared to answer the call-taker’s questions, which may include:

• The location of the emergency, including the street address

• The phone number you are calling from

• The nature of the emergency

• Details about the emergency, such as a physical description of a person who may have committed a crime, a description of any fire that may be burning, or a description of injuries or symptoms being experienced by a person having a medical emergency

Remember, the call-taker’s questions are important to get the right kind of help to you quickly. Be prepared to follow any instructions the call-taker gives you. Many 911 centers can tell you exactly what to do until help arrives, such as providing step-by-step instructions to aid someone who is choking or needs first aid or CPR. Do not hang up until the call-taker instructs you to.

If you dial 911 by mistake, or if a child in your home dials 911 when no emergency exists, do not hang up—that could make 911 officials think that an emergency exists, and possibly send responders to your location. Instead, simply explain to the call-taker what happened.

Be sure all children in your home know what 911 is, how to dial from your home and cell phone, and to trust the 911 call taker.  Make sure your child is physically able to reach at least one phone in your home. When calling 911 your child needs to know their name, parent’s name, telephone number, and most importantly their address. Tell them to answer all the call takers questions and to stay on the phone until instructed to hang up.

Any situations other than the previously described examples should be considered non-emergency,  and handled without calling 911.
More information on 9-1-1 calls can be found on the 911.gov website and by visiting the California 9-1-1 Emergency Communications Branch on our Cal OES website. 

Bryan May

Bryan May is a Public Information Officer for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Prior to joining Cal OES in 2017, Bryan spent 30 years as an Emmy award winning television anchor and reporter.

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