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Teaching Kids About Real Life Emergencies

The popularity of television programs that dramatize emergency situations and celebrate real life heroes is no accident. These programs find a receptive audience in viewers because they portray ordinary people performing acts of courage under extraordinary pressure.

Many of the heroes featured on the programs are children, which raises these 2 questions:

It is true that most school-age children are taught about emergency services. Children who live in areas where the service is available usually learn medical emergency phone numbers before they learn their own. Elementary school classes often visit local fire stations to learn fire prevention and safety tips. Many resources and curriculum guides are available to schools and local agencies.

However, children learn best when their lessons are reinforced at home. There are a number of steps parents can take to teach their children the appropriate actions to take in an emergency situation.

Make the Right Call

It's usually easy for kids to understand the difference between a real emergency and a perceived emergency, like a lost pair of favored jeans. Accidents can happen at any time though in most cases, an adult is around to help out. When that moment happens and there is no one else around, it is important for them to understand how to call for help.

Help can be in the form of finding the nearest adult, or by using a phone to call for emergency medical help. Let your child know an adult will pick up and walk them through what they need to do. Teach them to keep a clear head and take note of where they are. If someone is seriously injured, this information is invaluable to getting help.

On the flip side, children should know that calling an emergency number is for emergencies only and not for unnecessary calls. If they make those calls, someone else may be delayed in getting help when they really need it. Help them understand they will not get in trouble for calling if they are unsure if they need help. In cases like this, it is better to be safe than sorry. If they call an emergency service by mistake, they should remain on the line to let the dispatcher know that the call was a mistake.

"Just the Facts": What to Say to a Dispatcher

Callers are usually asked to provide their name, address, the name of the nearest cross street, and their telephone number.

Do not rely on the fact that the number called from will automatically show up on the dispatcher's screen. This does not always happen. Emergency calls from cellular phones may not show the location of the caller either. Write your cellular phone number in a notebook and put the notebook in the glove compartment. Instruct your child to provide that number to medical emergency personnel only.

The caller is then asked questions about the condition of the victim. The child should never guess at an answer and should ask the dispatcher to explain any questions that cause confusion. The youngster should follow the emergency operator's instructions, and should never touch, move, or cover a victim, unless it is absolutely necessary to remove the victim from danger.

If someone other than the victim is with the child, the child may be asked to dial for emergency help or go away from the accident site to signal emergency personnel. Children must be taught not to go out into the street where they will be in the path of emergency personnel.

Young callers will be told not to hang up the phone until the emergency operator tells them to. They must remain as calm as possible and should not shout into the phone. Youngsters should know the telephone number for a responsible adult that can be contacted in case of an emergency, and should call that adult after contacting emergency personnel.

Children with medical conditions such as diabetes or severe food allergies should know about their conditions and be able to name any medications they take.

If a child feels to blame for an accident, the natural instinct may be to run away. Running away can make things worse. If the accident was a mistake that may have caused the accident, sticking around to help out will make things better.

Steve works out of a communication center which handles 1,250 calls per day. He says that it is important to teach children that emergency calls cost nothing from public telephones. Children who are lost or are being followed, or who find themselves in a situation that scares them or does not feel right, can call for help, even if they have no money.

"We once had a 5-year-old call in on a car phone," Steve says. "He and his mother had been in a car accident and his mother was in critical condition. He was able to tell us where they were, and his call saved her life".

"Teach your child that help is just a phone call away," he adds, "and that there's a friend at the other end."

Prepare Your Babysitter and Day Care Provider

Parents must make sure babysitters and day care providers have all the information necessary to successfully handle any emergency. Emergency numbers should be programmed into all programmable phones. The numbers should be posted right by all household telephones in case a power outage deletes the programmed numbers.

Babysitters should know the address of the home at which they are babysitting and be able to identify the nearest intersection. They must be provided with a working landline or cell phone number where parents or an emergency contact can be reached. Babysitters should also know how to reach emergency personnel, and be able to relate the age of the child, the nature of the emergency, the child's condition and location, and what and when the child last ate. They should also be informed about any medical problem your child has.

Day care providers should have a list of your child's allergies, the name of your pediatrician, your home, work, and cell phone numbers. They should also have an additional adult contact number. Day care providers should also be provided with a list (preferably with photographs) of any and all people authorized to pick up or remove your child from the day care premises.

Accidents and medical emergencies happen. Be sure that your child (or your child's caretaker) has the necessary skills to handle emergency situations. Take steps today to avoid tragedy tomorrow.


American Red Cross Health and Safety Services

Safe Kids Worldwide


Canadian Red Cross

Canada Safety Council


Emergency preparedness for children. Government of Canada website. Available at: Updated January 15, 2015. Accessed July 23, 2015.

Teaching children to use 9-1-1. Minot Rural Fire Department website. Available at: Accessed July 23, 2015.

Teaching your child how to use 911. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: Updated April 2013. Accessed July 23 ,2015.

Last reviewed July 2015 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 10/16/2013