Most kids struggle to recognize an emergency and call 911. Here's what experts say to do.

Smartphones can make it tricky

Worried your kid might be in danger and not be able to get help? Here's how mom is teaching her kids to call 911. (Image: Getty; illustration by Liliana Penagos)
Worried your kid might be in danger and not be able to get help? Here's how mom is teaching her kids to call 911. (Image: Getty; illustration by Liliana Penagos)

I was cleaning up the bathroom just a few steps away from my toddler son while he bathed when he slipped below the surface. As I raced toward him, reaching over the edge to scoop him up, I slipped on the wet floor, hitting my back and head. Luckily, I wasn’t badly hurt, and was with it enough to continue my water rescue successfully.

But the incident got me thinking. I have four kids age 8 and under, and not one of them could probably have called 911 to communicate our emergency if they’d watched this scene unfold differently. How is this possible? We are surrounded by devices! Yet thanks to passcodes and knowledge obstacles and shouts of “where the heck is Mommy’s phone?” it wouldn’t have mattered.

When we parents were kids, the phone was always in the same place: hanging on the wall. It was easy to pick it up and dial 911 in an emergency. "Phones are more sophisticated today, and smartphones each have their own idiosyncrasies that can make it harder for a child without phone experience to know what to do,” says Dr. Melissa St. Germain, vice president and medical director of Children's Physicians and Urgent Care in Omaha, Neb. “Children are also less likely to 'dial a phone' and more likely to communicate with others via text, apps and social media, so we have to teach our kids what to do in an emergency.”

So, pregnant with my fifth child, I went on a journey to figure out the 911 conundrum that we never had in the '90s when home phones were the norm. Here’s what I learned.

Realizing the limitations to access for kids

Once I really started considering how few options my kids had, I taught them to run to the neighbor’s house, since they are usually home. From there, I struggled to figure out how to connect our family's Alexa to emergency services, instead settling for them using the device to call my mom, who lives nearby. Then, I tried to teach the kids how to repeatedly push the side of my iPhone — assuming they could even find it during an emergency — but their little fingers were fumbling through that. Finally, we fought with their iPads, which would only allow them to call a few preset numbers. Clearly, I was either tech-illiterate, or I’d come across a more widespread problem, or both.

Turns out I’m far from alone. In a 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics medical journal Pediatrics, researchers found that "most primary school–aged children, and particularly those in kindergarten and first grade, are not prepared to respond to an emergency using a smartphone to dial 911 and communicate the emergency to a dispatcher. Additionally, most children in kindergarten and first grade were unable to recognize an emergency." That said, we do see random and inspiring stories in the media from time to time of kids stepping up to the plate in an emergency. Recently, for example, a Minnesota mom who was struggling to breathe was saved when her 4-year-old told Siri to “call Daddy,” since they hadn’t taught him about 911 yet, resulting in lifesaving care. But the study shows it’s not the norm.

To eliminate having to delete phone's password protections, I resorted to other measures.In my only effort to revert technology back to the “good old days,” I decided an old-school phone would solve this once and for all. I leaned into the retro vibe of my idea, purchasing a yellow phone with a cord that looked like it was from Mad Men. Within minutes of setting it up, it started ringing off the hook. Junk calls interrupted my Zoom calls, and now I had a new problem. So, I returned it in favor of a more modern office phone in which you can actually silence the ringer. Though I currently have hundreds of missed calls from spammers, my kids now know where a phone is in the house at all times.

Teaching kids to identify an emergency

Teaching them the process of calling 911 was still harder than I thought. First, we went over what is and isn’t an emergency.

“Role play is a great way to practice communication skills with our kids. Tell your child that it’s really important to know what to do in an emergency, so you’re going to help them practice. Talk through what an emergency is and when they should call for help, and how to do that,” St. Germain says. “Have a pretend emergency and let your child or children go through the steps of identifying the emergency and the need to call for help. Let them practice finding the phone, turning it on and navigating to the screen to dial.”

I found out quickly that my 4-year-old forgets which number is the “9,” which he confuses with “6,” and how many times to push the “1.” Not so promising. As a solution, I put a Post-It note next to the phone showing which numbers to push, and used some bright nail polish to label the big buttons themselves. The older kids, 8 and 6, were more successful, and seem confident that they have a stationary phone to use now.

Preparing for the emotional reaction

It’s not just the technology that can be a barrier to accessing help for kids, but the shock and upset as well, should an actual emergency occur. After resolving the phone dilemma, it was time to approach that subject. Pediatric ER nurse Shannon Tripp, who has created courses educating moms on how to navigate medical emergencies in their own home, recommends preparing children for those big emotions.

“it’s very likely that your child will be scared. Preparing them for these emotions in advance will help them if the situation arises," Tripp says.

She has other specific tips to help kids feel ready for emergencies:

  • If a family member has a medical need, talk in detail about what this would look like so they recognize it

  • Prevent prank calling by talking about how it’s only for “true” emergencies, defining what this is and isn’t

  • Teach children your phone number, and your address, along with numbers 1 through 10 (help them understand to hit the “1” twice, and clarify that it’s not the number "11")

  • Print out a practice phone online to try it on

  • Differentiate the 911 dispatcher from strangers so they know it’s OK to give out information to them

  • Ask them questions as if you are the dispatcher during role play

  • Teach the kids to make sure they themselves are safe before calling

“It’s essential to prepare your kids for an emergency situation, because it not only empowers them but can save a life,” Tripp says.

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