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911 Caller Tips

Chances are that you and everyone you know will call for emergency assistance at least once or twice in your lifetime. However, no matter what your emergency is, you will probably experience feelings of anxiety, fear, or loss of control due to the potentially critical situation at hand. This information will hopefully lessen some of the anxiety caused by calling for emergency help by explaining what you, the caller, can expect when dialing an emergency assistance number.

When to Call For Help

Research has shown that the general public—those outside the world of providing emergency services—hesitates in making a call to 9-1-1. People may have difficulty recognizing the signs and symptoms of a medical emergency and feel that the call may be unwarranted. Some people may feel they are imposing on public services. Even those within the emergency services profession may fail to place a call because of underestimating the seriousness of a situation or denying that an emergency actually exists. Anyone can lose precious minutes in the delay of making a call due to concerns over the potential long-term impacts on work, childcare, or finances.

But it is up to you, the caller, to make that first step, to take action even if uncertainty exists or when a person you may feel needs help is actively denying that help is needed.

Remember, never be afraid to dial 9-1-1 because of uncertainty. If you THINK you or someone else is experiencing a medical emergency—call 9-1-1 immediately and let the dispatch center and other emergency service professionals help you. That’s why the service exists—to help you in an emergency situation. Examples of situations demanding immediate attention include:

  • Reaction from a snakebite or bee sting
  • An allergic reaction of any kind
  • A seizure or convulsion
  • Jerking movements that cannot be controlled
  • Burns covering an area larger than the palm of your hand
  • Electrical burn or shock, including lightning strike
  • Severe injury or being the victim of trauma or an attack
  • Bleeding or spurting blood that you can’t stop
  • Not breathing or having difficulty breathing
  • Gasping for air or turning blue or purple
  • Choking and unable to clear the obstruction
  • Unconsciousness, fainting, not alert, or making funny noises
  • Chest pains, constricting bands, or crushing discomfort around the chest area—even if the pain stops
  • Unusual numbness, tightness, pressure, or aching pain in the chest, neck, jaw, arm, or upper back

What to Expect When You Call 9-1-1

In Metro Nashville, a professionally trained emergency call taker/dispatcher will answer your call to 9-1-1. Although the call taker is well aware of the potential for crisis and any associated anxiety you may be experiencing, you must have the composure to answer several questions about the situation and the patient’s medical status. Some of the questions help to determine the level of medical support sent to the scene—emergency service personnel and the type and number of emergency vehicles—while other questions are meant to assist you until emergency assistance arrives. Be ready to give medical information and describe any person (male, female, age, height, description of clothing) or vehicle (color, type, last direction of travel) involved in the incident.

In cases of serious medical problems, such as cardiac arrest, MNECC call takers are trained to give real-time instruction in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and life-saving first aid. When it looks like a baby may arrive earlier than anticipated, our call takers can assist you over the phone in safely delivering the infant.

All information is taken while a dispatcher simultaneously routes emergency medical service (EMS) professionals to your location. The same applies to giving emergency instructions. Your job, as the caller, is to answer the questions as accurately as possible and to pay particular attention to the call taker’s instructions. Also, since an emergency situation tends to provoke a great deal of anxiety, it’s up to you to remain as calm as possible. Do not argue. Do not lose your patience. Don’t tell the call taker to hurry. They already know that. Every question the call taker asks is important and designed to assist in the most appropriate and timely response to your emergency. The call taker will stay on the line with you as long as the situation dictates. Do not hang up until the call taker says it is okay to hang up. If the connection is lost, for whatever reason, the call taker will try to call you back.

There are other ways you, the caller, can assist. For example, if possible, you should unlock the front door to allow easy access for emergency responders, and put all pets inside a closed room. You may want to turn on the outdoor lights of the residence or business to increase visibility. If outside and aiding a victim of an accident, try to find someone who can flag down the emergency vehicle from a safe distance as it approaches.

Questions to Expect

The call taker will always ask you to say the address of the emergency and your callback number for verification. The call taker will ask you to repeat the address in the interest of accuracy. You must remember that the efficiency of emergency services depends upon the information received, and that includes an address or some way to identify a location that does not have an exact address, such as a railroad crossing, playground, or open field.

After the address and callback telephone number of the emergency have been verified as correct, the call taker will ask you four universal questions. These questions, listed below, are based on the patient’s medical condition and will help to organize and send the assistance required. The questions are:
  • The person’s problem or the type of incident (“What’s the problem, tell me exactly what happened?”) 
  • The person’s approximate age (“How old is s/he?”)
  • Whether the person is conscious (“Is s/he conscious?”)
  • Whether the person is breathing (“Is s/he breathing?”)

Exchanging this critical information with the call taker typically takes less than 30 seconds. After that, you may be asked to do nothing except wait for help to arrive, or the call taker may tell you to move to a safe environment (in case of a lightning storm or building fire, for example), or to assist in providing emergency care to the ill or injured person until help arrives.

Points to Remember

General 9-1-1 House Rules

  • 9-1-1 should be used for emergencies only, including serious medical problems (chest pains), life threatening situations (person with weapons), fires or crimes in progress.
  • If you are not sure, call 9-1-1.
  • Never be afraid to dial 9-1-1 because of uncertainty.
  • If you THINK you or someone else is experiencing a medical emergency, call 9-1-1 immediately and let the dispatch center and other emergency service professionals help you.
  • Be ready to give medical information and describe any person (male, female, age, height, description of clothing) or vehicle (color, type, last direction of travel) involved in the incident.
  • Once help is on its way, make sure the numbers on the outside of the residence where emergency assistance is needed are clearly visible from the roadway day or night.
  • If 9-1-1 is called by mistake, do not hang up; stay on the line and tell the dispatcher that everything is all right. If you don’t, the dispatcher may assume that an emergency has occurred and send a response team to your location.

For Adults

  • Talk to children about when and how to call 9-1-1.
  • Always teach “nine-one-one” as the emergency number.
  • Do not tell children to dial “nine-eleven” since there is no “eleven” on the telephone keypad.
  • Remind children not to make false 9-1-1 calls; it is unlawful and can cause a delay in responding to a real emergency.

A Checklist

  • Remain calm
  • Answer the dispatcher’s questions as accurately as possible
  • Pay particular attention to the dispatcher’s instructions and follow instructions carefully
  • Do not argue /li>
  • Do not lose your patience
  • Do not tell the dispatcher to hurry
  • Do not hang up until the dispatcher says it is okay to hang up


The National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED)
The American Safety & Health Institute (ASHI)