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Your Guide to Calling 911: Helpful Tips When Reporting an Emergency

Learn the do's and don'ts when it comes to making efficient 911 calls in an emergency situation.

Macy Meyer Editor I
Macy Meyer is a N.C. native who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021 with a B.A. in English and Journalism. She currently resides in Charlotte, N.C., where she has been working as an Editor I, covering a variety of topics across CNET's Home and Wellness teams, including home security, fitness and nutrition, smart home tech and more. Prior to her time at CNET, Macy was featured in The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, INDY Week, and other state and national publications. In each article, Macy helps readers get the most out of their home and wellness. When Macy isn't writing, she's volunteering, exploring the town or watching sports.
Expertise Macy covers a variety of topics across CNET's Home and Wellness teams, including home security, smart home tech, fitness, nutrition, travel, lifestyle and more. Credentials
  • Macy has been working for CNET for coming on 2 years. Prior to CNET, Macy received a North Carolina College Media Association award in sports writing.
Cynthia Paez Bowman Contributor
Cynthia Paez Bowman is a finance, real estate and international business journalist. Besides Bankrate.com, her work has been featured in Business Jet Traveler, MSN, CheatSheet.com, Freshome.com and SimpleDollar.com. She owns and operates a small digital marketing and public relations firm that works with select startups and women-owned businesses to provide growth and visibility. Cynthia splits her time between Los Angeles, California, and San Sebastian, Spain. She travels to Africa and the Middle East regularly to consult with women's NGOs about small business development.
Macy Meyer
Cynthia Paez Bowman
6 min read
911 on a cellphone
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Calling 911, and doing it right, is a skill everyone should have. It could be a matter of life and death. 

Time is of the essence when reporting an emergency. This is especially important because ongoing budget cuts and staff shortages mean the average emergency response time in major metropolitan cities could be as long as 20 minutes. The sooner you communicate your emergency clearly and accurately to the operator, the faster help can be dispatched. 

This guide will explain when you should call 911 and walk you through the process of making a proper emergency phone call.

For more security and safety tips, read up on common home security mistakes you may be making, learn how to reduce the risk of car break-ins, and check out what you should keep in a safe

When was 911 established?

The recognizable three-digit phone number is a fairly recent addition to emergency services. The UK created the first version -- Brits dial 999 -- 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's easy to remember and could be dialed quickly on standard rotary phones of the time. 

How to contact 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 directly call 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?

Unlike Alexa, Google Assistant can call 911 via voice command. You can say, "OK, Google, call 911" to connect with emergency services. 

Also, if you're a Google Nest Aware subscriber located in the US, you may also use the Google Home app to contact an emergency call center to report an emergency. This feature is available even if you're away from your home, like at work or on vacation. Just make sure the Google Nest smart speakers and smart displays covered by your Nest Aware subscription are actually located at your home's physical address before you use this feature or it may not work and dispatchers would not know where to report. Here's a full guide on how Nest Aware emergency calling works. 

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?

Yes, 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.

911 operator

When speaking to a 911 dispatcher, always remain calm and respond clearly. 

Ignatiev/Getty Images

When should you call 911?

Should you call 911 if you break a bone? What about if you get into a car accident? Most people know to only call 911 in an emergency, but sometimes it can be hard to distinguish what constitutes a 911-call caliber emergency. 

Here's a quick cheat sheet for when to call 911.

911 should be called in medical emergencies:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Signs of stroke/intense chest pains
  • Seizure
  • Severe difficulty breathing
  • Choking
  • Drug overdose
  • The condition is life or limb-threatening

911 should be called in life-threatening situations or to report crimes in progress:

  • Fire (whether it's your home, business, car, another building or brush or wildfire)
  • Shooting
  • Drowning
  • Severe burns
  • Poisoning 
  • Home invasion, burglary or robbery 
  • Fight or incident with a deadly weapon
  • Serious car accidents 

You should also be inclined to call 911 if moving the victim could cause further injury, if the condition could worsen while on the way to a hospital or if the person needs immediate paramedic attention and equipment. 

unconscious male worker lying on floor at warehouse

Call 911 in medical emergencies. 

PixelsEffect/Getty Images

You should never dial 911 for a nonemergency situations. Instead, dial the non-emergency telephone number for your area. Or directly call your local police or fire department. 

A nonemergency incident would include property damage, vehicle break-in or a burglary when the perpetrator has already fled the scene, vandalism, car accidents with no injured persons and theft. Do not call 911 for information, minor illness or injury, a pet accident or when the power goes out. 

If you're on the fence about calling 911, it is best to call and let the operator determine if you need emergency assistance. It is truly best to be safe than sorry, but it's important to be mindful when calling 911. Nonemergency calls could cause a life-threatening delay in getting emergency assistance to people who really need it.

How to call 911 the right way

Follow these three critical steps to report an emergency and dispatch authorities efficiently: 

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 have to repeat yourself or get interrupted when you're stressed, but the best thing you can do is stay calm and collect yourself so you can respond as clearly as possible. Remember, they want to help you. 

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. 

The bottom line

Calling 911 is rarely for pleasant circumstances. It's important to know how to make the call -- and teach your kids how to as well. 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. 

For more on home security, check out how to keep your security cameras from being hacked and read up on using an old smartphone as a security camera. Plus, read about the most ideal locations for your home security cameras. 

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