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Calling 911: Helpful tips when reporting an emergency

Learn to make emergency calls quickly and efficiently.

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Calling 911 is something everyone should know how to do properly. Time is of the essence -- and budget cuts and staff shortages mean that the average emergency response times in cities like Seattle is almost 20 minutes. The sooner you communicate your emergency properly to the operator, the faster help can be dispatched. This guide will answer "What is 911?" and walk you through making an emergency phone call. 

When did 911 start?

The three-digit phone number is a fairly recent addition. Great Britain created the first version as early as 1937. The US didn't introduce its own until decades later, when the first official 911 call was made in early 1968. Developed by AT&T, 911 was chosen because it was easy to remember and could be dialed quickly on standard rotary phones of the time. 

What ways can you call 911?

Today, calling 911 from cellphones is the most common way to report an emergency. Roughly 80% of calls are made from a wireless phone. However, 911 services continue to evolve with technology.

Can you text 911?

Text-to-911 service is available in select areas. The Federal Communications Commission has urged all emergency call centers to start accepting texts. However, it's recommended to call 911 instead of texting because call centers believe you can provide more information over the phone to an operator.

Can Alexa call 911?

Amazon Alexa can't call directly 911 as there are regulatory compliance issues and surcharges required for it to work. Plus, the GPS data needed to accurately find you isn't available with Alexa. You could try to set up a routine for indirectly calling 911 from a cellphone by adding 911 to your contacts, but it's probably easier to skip Alexa and reach for a phone. 

Can Google Home call 911?

As with Alexa, Google Assistant can't call 911. It doesn't mean you won't be able to in the future, but there are multiple obstacles that need to be worked out first. 

Can Siri call 911?

Yes! Siri can call 911. There are a few ways you can ask, too:

  • "Hey Siri, call 911."
  • "Hey Siri, call an ambulance."
  • "Hey Siri, call emergency services."
  • "Hey Siri, dial 911."

Can you call 911 without service?

Incredibly enough, you can call 911 without service -- even if you forgot to pay your phone bill or only have an old phone without a current plan. All wireless phones can call 911. The only issue is if you get disconnected, the call center you were speaking with has no way to call you back. That's why it's important to make time on the phone with 911 count.

How to call 911

Follow these three steps to get help:

1. Dial 911 and take a deep breath

Staying as calm as possible is critical. It's easier said than done, but the operator on the other side of the call is trained to follow a certain procedure to collect the information they need and get you help as quickly as possible. It may feel exasperating to get interrupted when you're stressed and trying to tell your story, but the best thing you can do is to try and collect yourself so you can respond as clearly and calmly as possible. 

2. Have important facts ready

There are certain details the dispatcher will need. The three most important points to provide right away are:

  • What is happening (is someone hurt, for example)
  • What you need (police, fire or ambulance)
  • Your location (address, cross streets or major landmarks or businesses)

Once you give the basic info, the operator may ask for details regarding your location, type of injury, people involved or what else is happening. Let the operator help you. Listen carefully and respond with the most detailed -- but brief -- answers.

Don't panic if you're not entirely sure about your location. If you're on a cellphone, 911 can probably track you. However, any details you can provide may help with accuracy. 

3. Stay on the phone

Don't hang up until the dispatcher says it's safe to do so. In some cases, the dispatcher may even stay until help arrives. 

Wrapping up

Having to call 911 is rarely for pleasant circumstances. It's important to know how to make the call -- and teach your kids, too. It's also a good idea to teach children at an early age that 911 is for serious emergencies only and "pretend" calls are not OK. Emergency services take all 911 calls seriously, even if the person hangs up or the callers are just kids playing around. If that's the case and you or your child dial 911 by accident, remain on the line and explain what happened before hanging up.