Calling 911: Tips and Guidelines


911 is an emergency phone number for North America. It works in 98% of the U.S. and Canada. When someone dials 911, they are connected to a dispatch office in their local area that has access to emergency resources and can send help to you wherever you are.

Most locations in America now use the Enhanced 911 service that automatically determines your location and gives it to the operator.

Tips for Calling 911

A lot of calls come into the 911 dispatch offices that are not an actual emergency, and this monopolizes the time and resources needed for real emergencies. Here are some tips to know when calling 911.

Tip 1 - If you call by mistake don’t hang up

Whether you are calling about a legitimate emergency or called by mistake, never hang up the phone. Dispatchers are highly trained to get information and then route the right resources (fire, ambulance, police) to your location. If you hang up, without providing more details, a dispatcher could send the police racing to your home to help you out. Stay on the line to explain the situation and hang up only when the dispatcher is done with you, after help has arrived.

Tip 2 - Stay calm and answer all the questions

Emergencies are stressful and scary, but it is essential to try and stay as calm as possible when speaking with a 911 dispatcher. The operator will ask you questions like your name, your phone number (in case you get disconnected), your address and the details of what is going on. If someone is injured or sick provide as much detail as possible and let the 911 operator guide the call with his or her questions. These questions help them determine what type of help you need and who to contact to get it.

Tip 3 - Be prepared with address/location information

Before you call 911, take note of your location/address so you can tell the operator. They need to know exactly where you are so they can send help. Make sure the house or building where you are, is labeled correctly or give the operator specific information on how to find you.

Tip 4 - How to describe a suspect

 When describing a suspect to the 911 operator think of descriptors like race, sex, hair and eye color, height, weight, color and style of clothing, the car they were driving, the location you spotted them in and other specifics. If they had any scars or tattoos mention those as well. You may also indicate their voice or anything else you noticed that would help police identify them.

emergency call

Make the Right Call: Not Every Situation is an Emergency

Knowing when and when not to call 911 is vitally important. Along with calling 911, there are other methods of online and offline police reporting.

A true emergency consist of:

  • When someone is hurt or very ill.
  • Any accident where someone is inured or property is damaged.
  • Medical emergencies like heart attack, stroke, or choking.
  • To report a fire in progress.
  • To report a crime being committed.

Things that are not emergencies and you should not call 911 for are:

  • To get local police hours, weather reports or directory assistance.
  • When your cat is stuck in a tree.
  • To report a nuisance or nonemergency police issue.
  • To make appointments to be escorted to the hospital.
  • Minor cuts or injuries.
  • When you lose electricity.

Language Line Services

The 911 system has a program in place to handle calls from Americans that do not speak English. In many cases, they hire 911 language interpreter services to assist with those phone calls. There are quite a few of these companies that support 911 offices and take over when callers cannot be understood.

Post Your Address Clearly and Prominently at Your Entrance and on Your Home

Part of the 911 emergency system instructs all homeowners to post their address clearly and prominently at the entrance of their home. This is so that emergency responders can find you as quickly as possible to get you the help you need.

Teach Your Children How to Call 911

When children are little, talk to them about 911 and stress the fact that it is never ok to prank or call 911 as a joke. Teach your kids how to properly use 911 if someone is hurt, choking, sick, not breathing, or if they are a witness to a crime in progress or a fire or accident.

If the emergency is a fire or break-in, make sure kids know to first get to safety and then call 911.

Services for Hearing-Impaired Persons

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) set up a system for hearing-impaired people called Text-to-911. This system allows someone who cannot use a traditional phone to text 911 with details and communicate with an operator. It was implemented in 2014 and now works in most regions of the U.S.


Other Police Department Hotlines

Along with 911, the American emergency system has other hotlines to help route people in need to the right department or resource quickly and easily. One example is the domestic abuse hotline for victims of domestic abuse who need help getting to safety and may require medical attention or shelter.

Some other examples are child abuse hotlines, rape hotlines, suicide prevention hotlines, hate crimes, anonymous tip hotlines, bomb and arson hotlines, and different for things like gangs, victims of crimes and drug activities or crimes.