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A Primer on Using 9-1-1 for Emergencies

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
A Primer on Using 9-1-1 for Emergencies

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These days it is easy to by cynical about government, be it Federal, State, County or City.  And yet in spite of the inefficiencies, the crooked politicians and the questionable use of taxpayer funds, there are still some good – if not excellent – and valuable resources available to all of us.

One of those services is 9-1-1, the national (in the United States and Canada) Emergency Telephone Number.  The history of the 9-1-1 emergency number is quite interesting and has evolved from the days when all telephone calls were manually connected by an operator, otherwise known as a real human.

A Primer on Using 9-1-1 for Emergencies

These days calls are connected digitally and in over 98 percent of locations in the United States and Canada, dialing “9-1-1” from any telephone will link the caller to an emergency dispatch center (called a PSAP by the telecom industry) which can send emergency responders to the caller’s location.  In most areas enhanced 9-1-1 is available, which automatically provides dispatch the caller’s location.911 sign

Privacy issues notwithstanding, this is one instance of big-brother-knowing-where-we- are that can and does save lives.

Today on Backdoor Survival I would like to outline the basics of 9-1-1 since it is my belief that the 911 system plays a valuable role in emergency and disaster preparedness.  Since 9-1-1 is not something we frequently use (if ever), it is easy to become complacent about the do’s and don’ts for using this life-saving service.

Why not take a few moments to review these guidelines for using 9-1-1 in an emergency situation?  You just never know when you will need them.

When to call 9-1-1

Call 9-1-1 to get help for someone who is hurt or in danger.  That someone may be you, may be a family member or may be a stranger.  Here are some examples:

  • If someone is seriously injured.
  • If you see someone hurt in an accident.
  • If you are a witness to an accident, fire, chemical spill or other disaster.
  • If you see someone acting suspiciously, stealing, or breaking into a home or building.
  • If you smell smoke or see a fire.
  • If you see people fighting and hurting each other.
  • If you see someone being robbed or beaten.
  • If you believe emergency assistance may be needed but are not sure, call 9-1-1 and describe the situation.

Note: If you call 9-1-1 by mistake, don’t hang up. Explain what happened to the 9-1-1 operator.

When not to call 9-1-1

In the event of a natural disaster or emergency, minimize your calls to 9-1-1 unless it is a life-threatening police, medical or fire emergency.  Here are some examples of what not to do.

  • Never call 9-1-1 as a joke.
  • Never call 9-1-1 to ask for information.
  • Never call just to see if 9-1-1 is working.
  • Do not call unless you or someone else needs emergency response from police, fire or emergency medical personnel.

Note:  If you experience other types of problems that are not related to these emergency services, call the appropriate telephone number for those services.

Other emergency phone tips

If a natural disaster has occurred and you do not hear a dial tone when you try to make a call, do not hang up. Wait a few seconds to see if you get a dial tone so that you can make your call.

Pre-plan and have handy the number of an out-of-area contact.  Why? In an emergency, local phone lines could be jammed. If you have a friend or relative to call long distance, you should be able to get through.  This is a good way for your family can leave messages for each other and and to let people know you’re okay.


What to say when you call 9-1-1

This may seem like common sense – and it is – but in an emergency, you may not be thinking clearly.  The dispatcher answering the call will guide you but try to be prepared with the following pieces of information:

  • Tell the person what is wrong and the exact nature of your emergency
  • Tell the person your name, address and telephone number.
  • Do not hang up until they tell you that you should; they may have to ask you more questions.
  • If your 9-1-1 call is disconnected, call back.

Teach your children the correct use of 9-1-1

Parents should talk to children about how and when to use 9-1-1. Especially important is teaching children to take the initiative to call if one of the parents or caregivers falls or appears sick and unresponsive.

Special Considerations for Cell Phones

Identify yourself as a wireless cell phone caller. Be ready to provide your wireless phone number and the exact location where help is needed. (Most but not all wireless 9-1-1 calls automatically provide your location.)  If asked for your location, provide the exact location, including cross streets, mileposts or landmarks.

Other cell phone tips:

  • Stay calm and answer all questions.  Do not hang up until you are told to do so.  Once you hang up, keep the power on in case the 9-1-1 center needs to call you back.  (See the wilderness exception below.)
  • Your phone may be pre-programmed to dial 9-1-1 with one button and you may accidentally call 9-1-1 and not know it.  To prevent this from happening, handle your phone carefully to prevent the automatic misdialing of the 9-1-1 speed dial.
  • Remember:  Only call 9-1-1 if you need an emergency response. Calling 9-1-1 to ask directions or the location of the nearest gas station is not allowed and in most jurisdictions, is considered a crime.

911 Cell Phone Calls From the Wilderness

911 Cell PhoneWho will I reach?  Good question.  You need to know that wireless cell phone service may not be available in the wilderness.

If service is available, your 9-1-1 call for help will be picked up by the nearest cellular tower in the most direct line of sight to your location. It could be picked up at a county 9-1-1 center, by a State Patrol dispatch, or even by the Canadian authorities. Since these call answering centers are all located outside the boundaries of the calling area, they would have no way of knowing from where you are calling unless you tell them. Be prepared to provide your location.

Remember, help may be several hours away or longer. Be prepared to wait it out as best as you can (those preps of yours will come in handy).  Also remember to:

  • Start out with a fresh, fully charged battery and carry an extra charged battery with you. Keep batteries warm for extra-long use.
  • Be prepared to give complete information about the nature of the emergency. You may only be able to make one call. Unlike populated areas, when you are in the wilderness, turn the phone off when not in use.
  • Establish a call schedule with the emergency center so there are specific times when you will have your phone turned on to receive calls or to make calls out.
  • Be sure you know your location, including the trailhead and nearest city, destination or waypoints.
  • Know how your wireless phone works and instruct everyone in your party on how to use your phone.

There are strategies you can use to increase your signal strength on remote areas and in the wilderness.  If you have an antenna, try pointing it up.  Finding a clearing, gaining elevation or simply turning your body may help improve your signal.

And remember, a cell phone should never ever replace common-sense preparedness. (Duh.)

The Final Word

The main thing to keep in mind is that 9-1-1 is intended to be used to report life-threatening situations requiring police, medical or fire emergency assistance. Calling 9-1-1 unnecessarily will bog down the system its resources (primarily dispatch personnel) and could very well prevent an emergency responder from getting to someone who really needs the help.

On the other hand, do not hesitate to call if you are in danger or feel threatened.  (A decent firearm and the knowledge to use it will help too.)

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

Bargain Bin: Thinking of heading out to the wilderness?  Although I like to hike, I usually do not stray too far from the beaten path.  I typically grab my hiking boots, a camera, my cell phone, some Kashi bars (protein and fiber bars) and water and plus lightweight pack filled with gear.  One more thing . . . Tucker the Dog for company.

For longer treks, I suggest the following for your consideration.

Kershaw OSO Sweet Knife: This “oh so sweet” knife is solidly built, stainless steel knife that comes razor sharp right out of the package. It will pretty much cut through anything the price is amazing.

Windstorm Safety Whistle: This particular whistle can be heard a long distance away and above howling wind and other competing sounds.

Kaito Electronics Portable Dynamo & Solar-Powered Radio and Cell Phone Charger: This one has it all and a very reasonable price given its features. It will operate from any one of four different power sources including hand crank and solar and includes a radio, lantern, cell phone charger and more. It can be used with 3 AA batteries or an optional AC adapter. It is perfect for receiving NOA alerts and the LED flashlight on its side turns into a flashing red SOS for emergencies. There is even a USB port for charging a cell phone. A good alternative is the Etón American Red Cross Self-Powered Radio with Flashlight, Solar Power and Cell Phone Charger.

Rothco Type III Commercial Paracord: You can get 100 feet of Paracord for very affordably. This is a real bargain but be aware that price can vary substantially depending on the color.

Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets (Pack of 10): You will be surprised at how warm these will keep you. Be sure to test one out in advance so that you have the confidence to trust the blanket in an emergency. You will be amazed at how small and portable these are; a packet will easily fit in a back pocket.

Emergency Shelter Tent: The Emergency Tent is a lightweight and compact emergency shelter. It is wind and waterproof and easy to set up and is roomy enough for two people.

Emergency Sleeping Bag: Another low cost item designed to keep you warm in an emergency situation.

Swedish Firesteel: Using this basic pocket fire-starter, you can get a nice fire going under almost any conditions. This is a small, compact version.

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One Response to “A Primer on Using 9-1-1 for Emergencies”

  1. Just a word of advice. According to a Supreme Court case in 1981, Warren v District of Columbia, police, fire and rescue and not legally bound to respond to 911 calls. They know this. Hate to throw water on your fire but the people need to know this.

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