Teaching Kids About Dialing 911

Training your child how to call 911 isn’t just emergency preparedness. It could one day save your life.


Teaching kids to dial 911 isn’t merely emergency preparedness. It could one day safe your life. Most importantly, kids must learn that dialing 911 should never be part of a game, a joke, or a prank.

There’s a crank call prank that was popular when my mother was a kid and it’s so infamous that Wikipedia has it as an entry. The caller calls a store and asks if they have “Prince Albert in a can.” When the unsuspecting clerk responds “yes” (because the tobacco was notoriously packaged in a can), the caller follows up with, “Well, you’d better let him out!” or “Then why don’t you let him out before he suffocates!?” In another version of the prank, the caller asks, “Do you have Prince Albert in the can?”

"Prince Albert Cigarettes" by Alex Israel Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prince_Albert_Cigarettes.JPG#/media/File:Prince_Albert_Cigarettes.JPG
“Prince Albert Cigarettes” by Alex Israel Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When the clerk says “yes,” the caller responds, “Well let him out before he drowns!” My mom once called the local corner store and tried that prank. Unfortunately, the store clerk knew it was her, knew my grandparents who owned the luncheonette/variety store down the street, and my mom was busted.

Crank calls are part of childhood too. Posing as a radio DJ, I used to call random numbers from the phone book and tell those who answered that they had won a black and white television set. All kids, especially young ones, have a fascination with the phone. It’s one of those grownup tools that kids want the privilege of using especially because little kids rarely receive phone calls, adults do and seemingly have all the fun. As kids grow up, they test out roles using the phone, try out scripts and bits of dialogue from what they hear on the television and at home. If your child begins to express an interest in the phone, it’s probably time to teach them how to call 911 before they call it in a prank call.

What is 911

911 is a universal number to connect with emergency assistance. Established by Congress 1968, it replaced the need for individual telephone numbers for fire, police, medical, and rescue services and consolidated all emergency services into one number.

When I was a kid, 911 didn’t exist. If there was an emergency, we had three separate numbers posted for an fire, police, and medical. But I knew early on that those numbers weren’t to be called except in grave emergencies and thank goodness I never had to use them. Training a young child requires them to memorize important pieces of information such as their name, their address, and the problem. A young child who talks can be trained to dial 911 just as well as an adult. It’s a type of emergency preparedness that isn’t just smart. It could one day save your life.

What is an emergency?

The following are situations that your child should consider an emergency:

  • A Medical emergency where someone is hurt.
  • There is a car accident.
  • You see someone choking.
  • One of your friends has an allergic reaction to a bee sting or food.
  • You see a robbery or someone breaks into your house.
  • Someone has a gun and is threatening to hurt others.
  • A stranger is following you home from school.
  • There is a natural disaster like a tornado, an earthquake, a flood, or a landslide.
  • You see a fire or an explosion.
  • A friend falls out of the window and gets hurt.

The following situations are not considered emergencies:

  • You lost your pet, a special toy or stuffed animal.
  • Your big brother is picking on you.
  • You’re practicing a fake emergency.
  • You’re bored and making a crank call.
  • You’re lonely and bored.

Do teach your child that using 911 for a nonemergency, especially for a crank call is illegal because it prevents real calls from getting to the dispatchers. If real emergencies can’t get through the phone lines, innocent people can get hurt or die.

So what should your child do and say in the emergency?

  1. If possible, dial 911 from a house phone and not a cell phone. Tell your children that 911 is actually spelled 9-1-1 on the phone keypad and not 9-11. Have them practice on a pretend keypad or inactivated phone. Tell them never to practice on a real phone.
  2. Tell your child to stay as calm as possible and teach them coping mechanisms they can use to stay calm.
  3. Role-play a variety of scenarios with scripts so your children begins to recognize what constitutes an emergency and what isn’t. Practice questions they’ll be asked by the 9-1-1- dispatcher and the answers they should provide.
  4. When the dispatcher answers the phone, your child must be able to provide his or her name, address, phone number, and must be able to describe a little bit of the emergency. If your child doesn’t know the location of the emergency, educate your child to notice what’s around him such as street signs, buildings, stores, highways,, parks, etc.
  5. Your child should tell the dispatcher what kind of help is needed (fire, doctor, police, etc.). Most importantly, if the emergency such as a fire or robbery is in your home, your child should know to leave and should know where to go in case of an emergency. Call it a safe place.
  6. They should tell the dispatcher where the emergency is located.
  7. They should stay on the phone until the dispatcher tells you to hang up or until emergency help arrives where your child is.

The following is a recorded conversation between a five year old girl whose father was suffering a heart attack and 911.


 At What Age Should You Be Teaching Kids to Dial 911?

According to Tamara Walker, R.N., and child safety expert and instructor, children as young as age three can be taught to use 9-1-1 in response to an emergency.

The following video, though slightly dated, is a good educational companion to parental instruction.


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About Merle Huerta

Merle Huerta is a staff writer with Kars4Kids.org, a teacher, tutor, a retired army wife, and a mother of a blended family of 13.