When an emergency strikes, it can be distressing, confusing, and scary. Our thoughts immediately go to the worst-case scenario during these moments, exacerbating the fear that help might not arrive in time.
This was certainly the tragic case for Kyle Plush, a 16-year-old boy from Cincinnati who called 911 after being trapped by a minivan bench seat. His frantic pleas for help were ultimately unsuccessful, as the police were unable to locate him before he passed away.
There has been an outcry after Plush’s passing from people wondering about the efficacy of and protocol behind 911 calls. Why do things like this happen? What should you keep in mind before dialing 911? And is it possible to gather your thoughts and stay calm and collected during traumatic events?
Because it may be difficult to keep your cool during a crisis, everyone should have an emergency plan in place. Every second counts after an unexpected traffic accident, fire, health scare, or criminal attack, all of which can occur anywhere and at any time.
To help with this, we’ve spoken to both an EMT and a 911 operator to learn the most important tips that can save your life during emergencies—along with common misconceptions many of us have regarding emergency services.
Know your location.
“The first thing I need to know is where you are, regardless if it is police, fire, or medical,” says Nikki McDaniel, a Texas-based 911 dispatcher. “If the emergency is in a public place like a park, store, et cetera, describe where within that location to expedite emergency services getting to you.”
Former Virginia EMT and dispatcher Walter Gray adds, “Depending on the phone that you have—some places are really good at pinging your exact location, and others, not so much.”
This makes giving precise locations crucial in the era of smartphones.
“Over 70 percent of 911 calls come from a cell phone today,” observes McDaniel. “Before cell phones, calls came from a landline that gave dispatchers the exact address of the phone. Cell phones give us a general area, but not an exact location. In cases where minutes count, precious time is used searching for the caller or emergency.”
Unless you know text-to-911 is available in your area, always call. At present, emergency infrastructure isn’t in place (except in very limited circumstances) to route SMS messages to the proper call center. This means your message simply won’t go through.
Do you still have a home phone? If not and you have children at home do they know how to dial 911 from your cell? Pls take some time to educate your kids on how to access your phone and call 911. You never know when it will come in handy. #WednesdayWisdom
— Peel Paramedics (@Peel_Paramedics) April 11, 2018
And lastly, make yourself visible, whether that means making sure your home is well lit or turning on your car’s hazard lights so emergency responders can find you quickly.
Never hang up.
It can be tempting in the case of an emergency to make a 911 call, then immediately hang up to self-manage the situation until help arrives, but this would be a mistake.
“The caller is my eyes and ears to what is happening,” McDaniel says. “We not only are listening to the answers that the caller is giving, but what is going on in the background. If the caller is in a dangerous situation and feels that they cannot be seen on the phone, [they should] lay the phone down so we can hear what is happening.”
“All calls need the same initial information: where, who, what, and when,” McDaniel adds. “…Each type of call requires a different line of questions, instructions, and response.” This helps the dispatcher know who to send: police, fire, or medical emergency.
In addition, always make sure to give your number in case the line becomes disconnected, so the operator has a way of calling you back.
Don’t hang up if you dial 911 by mistake, either. It’s important to let the operator know it was a misdial. According to the Stanislaus County, California, regional 911 website, “All 911 hang-ups are called back, and if we cannot make contact with you again, we will dispatch an officer to the location.”
What about the reverse situation? Do 911 operators ever hang up on a caller?
“There are times that a dispatcher will do a ‘quick disconnect,’” McDaniel says. “This happens if multiple calls are coming in about the same situation. …With the high number of cell phones, it is not uncommon for a high number of calls in this type of situation.
The dispatcher still has to verify this is the same situation and if they have any additional information that was previously unknown or if they witnessed the accident. Once it is determined that the caller has no new emergency or additional information, the dispatcher will quick disconnect to take the next call.”
Oh, and it’s never a good idea to prank call 911.
In 5th grade, during gym, someone made a prank 911 call from the pay phone by gym. The police came. & lectured us about wasting police time & said they’d fine the person who called if they were found. I feel like patently unnecessary calls like this one should get fined too.
— Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) July 6, 2018
“A dispatcher never assumes a 911 call is a prank,” McDaniel says. “It is real and treated as such until first responders arrive and determine that it is a prank. Prank calls to 911 centers use valuable resources and time that are needed for true emergencies. It is illegal to prank call 911, but the charge and penalty varies state to state.”
Provide your full medical history.
If you’re dialing 911, and dealing with EMTs, it’s not the time to be shy. Give them all your pertinent health history, specifically any chronic or pre-existing health problems. In addition, make sure you have all your prescription medication info handy, including frequency and dosages.
Knowing if someone has issues like heart problems or asthma is crucial so an EMT knows protocols for potential life-saving procedures. This is why it’s also important to wear medical alert jewelry that is clearly labeled.
“If you’re calling for someone who possibly has a mental disability of some sort, it’s super important to make that known,” says Gray. “Because we have certain police officers who are specifically trained in working with people with mental disabilities. And those with mental disability training are only dispatched per request.”
Never worry about giving too much information: “Another misconception is that answering questions will delay the response. Dispatchers are excellent at multitasking,” says McDaniel. “Once the basic information of where and what is happening is obtained, the proper first responder is started while we ask further questions.”
When in doubt, call.
McDaniel says one of the worst things someone can do in an emergency, or if they think there’s an emergency, is to try and handle it on their own when there is a resource ready and available for them 24 hours a day.
“We are here to serve you any time, day or night,” she says. “I have had people call and say, ‘I heard a noise outside but feel silly,’ or [that they] hate bothering us by calling 911. If you think something is not right, then it is not right. It is always better to be safe than sorry.”
And by dialing 911, you may also be helping your community.
“[Dialing 911] also allows agencies to track criminal activity,” McDaniel says. “Example: You find your vehicle ajar when you go to leave for work, and the contents have obviously been rifled through, but nothing is missing. Many will say that they didn’t want to bother the police, but we want to know. This helps the police track what and when this is happening to effectively respond. If a carbon monoxide detector is sounded, let the fire department assess if it is a false alarm or not.”
But Gray says it’s also important to realize that while all calls will be responded to, there are protocols in place that may require patience.
“For EMS and firefighters, there are things we physically aren’t supposed to do unless there’s a police officer present,” he says. “So, if we determine that the scene is unsafe in any capacity, we can’t go forward until we have a police officer (or firefighter) there to make the scene safe … because it doesn’t make sense for us to make a bad situation worse by getting injured.”
In addition to knowing EMT and 911 tips that can save your life, it’s also important to understand what emergency services don’t offer.
“One of the biggest misconceptions people have is thinking they have some sort of choice when they call,” says Gray. “…They might want to go to a specific hospital. But we’re required to take you to the absolute nearest medical facility that’s going to be able to treat your needs, so your request [to go to another facility because your doctor is there, for example,] doesn’t matter.”
He adds, “You have the right to refuse. If you don’t want to go to that specific hospital (or be billed for transport, if applicable), you can just say no.” But unless you’re in condition to drive (or have someone there to drive you), this may not be realistic.
Gray clarifies that many of these policies are region-specific and can be very different depending on your state or city. Make sure to check your city and state’s policies to understand the protocols, billing info, and other issues that may vary depending upon location.
The incident involving Kyle Plush is another example of agency limitations because of the discrepancy between smartphone technology and the equipment used by 911 centers (and police officers).
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the local police department lacked a mapping app called Inform Mobile, which could have led them to Plush’s exact location. The reason? Such technology costs $700,000 dollars, and a tight city budget has impeded its implementation.
McDaniel, who has followed news updates on the case, says, “The Police Chief listed several things that went wrong. First, the Computer Assisted Dispatching (CAD) system experienced difficulties. CAD is what all dispatchers use to document and communicate information to responding units. …This led to another problem of the dispatcher working radio traffic not having the information to relay to officers that were searching.”
“The importance of 911 and maintaining upgraded equipment must be a priority, although it is a costly one,” she says.“Technology progresses so rapidly that this is a challenge facing every 911 center today and how to fund these advancements so these outcomes do not happen.”
While no emergency response system is 100 percent infallible, 911 and EMT services provide a vital safety net for anyone who finds themselves in a situation where things can go from dangerous to fatal in a matter of minutes.
The key is being aware of your surroundings and having all the proper information on hand when communicating with trained professionals. Following their instructions will keep you as safe as possible until help arrives and after they get there.
And while smartphones certainly cause headaches for EMTs and 911 operators, they do have their advantages in an emergency. For example, the iPhone offers a service called Emergency SOS that will automatically text your emergency contacts after placing a 911 call.
The iPhone’s Medical ID feature is another valuable tool. Not only can it store all your medical conditions, medications, and emergency contacts, but you can also enable it to display your info on a locked screen in case you’re incapacitated. And ICE Standard is an app for all smartphones that will also display important health info on a locked phone screen.
All of these tools and tips can help during times where peace of mind is scarce. Just remember, you don’t have to face it alone, so reach out for help when you need it most.