How To: Teaching Children to Dial 911

911 Emergency Call iPhone

Elements of survival can range from the very simple to the very complex.  In many cases, some of the simplest elements can be the most important.  One of these elements is teaching your children to dial 911.  It doesn’t require any additional expenses, just 30-60 minutes of your time, and could safe you or a loved one’s life.

What Age Do We Start?

Only you the parent can determine when your child is the right age to handle an emergency phone call.  Some children are ready as young as 3 and a half years if they are pronouncing words well and speaking in sentences. Most are more than ready by the age of 4.5 to 5 years (just before they start kindergarten).

What Do They Need to Know to Call?

To place a 911 call the more information the child knows, the faster they can relay the information to the emergency dispatcher on the other end of the line.  The following information is recommended, but not all is required to be known.  The more information the better.

  • Callers First Name
  • Callers Last Name
  • Callers Address
  • What happened?
  • Who needs help?
  • Why do they need help?
  • Is the person who needs help breathing?

Just because your child doesn’t know all of these pieces of information, don’t let that discourage you from teaching 911.  Remember, the more they know the better.  Still teach them to call.  Dispatchers and their information gathering skills are a blessing to the public and to emergency responders.  In addition to the information that comes up on screen when the call is received (which we will discuss in a minute), many dispatchers also use their ingenuity to obtain information from the phone call based on background noises heard in addition to information gathered directly from the caller.  When taking an emergency call from a young caller, this information gathering is very helpful to dial the responders in on the situation and location.


Source: KCCI YouTube Channel

When to Call

The next step is to teach your child what is an emergency.  The last thing you want is a police officer showing up to your front door because your child his crayons, needed help finding them, and called 911.  In some cities, over 75% of 911 calls are non-emergency.  In addition, prank calls in some municipalities is considered a crime.  Explain to your children that calling 911 for issues that are not an emergency, may delay a response to someone who really needs it.

So how do we explain what is an emergency?  Every child is different, there level of understanding and absorption also differs with age so your mileage may vary.  Here are a few tips:

Discuss types of emergencies where calling 911 is valid, here are some examples

  • Fire
  • Medical emergency
  • Car Accident
  • Home Invasion
  • Stranger Danger

Sometimes it is easier to explain what is not an emergency.  Provide some scenarios that would be common to the child, and ask them if it would be an emergency.  Include non-emergency situations and mix them with emergency situations.  If they answer incorrectly, provide an explanation to correct them.  Here are some examples:

  • You lost your favorite toy
  • Cannot find your favorite dress
  • Mommy fell down, looks like she is asleep but will not wake up
  • You can’t find your favorite stuffed animal
  • You lost your pet
  • Mommy says call 911
  • You skinned your knee
  • Your bike was stolen

Explain the end result of calling 911.  When you call, police, fireman, or medics will show up to help you and your family.

Go with your children to meet your local police, fire, and ems personnel to help build the relationship and break the fear of the unknown for your child.  For many children, it is helpful for them to visually connect to who will show up to help them.  Remember, you are trying to get them familiar to the person (possible where there are small emergency departments) and the uniform (more common in urban areas with large emergency departments). So they know what to look for and are not as afraid if the responders show up at the front door.

Explain to them that if they are not sure if it is an emergency, to ask a grown up.  But if there isn’t a grownup around to can answer, it’s probably an emergency.

911 In The Digital Era

A little more than a decade ago, 9 out of 10 homes in the US had a landline phone.  Today the numbers are down to half and the numbers are decreasing rapidly.  As a matter of fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 38% of adults and 45.5% of children live in households without a landline telephone.  In the old days you could pick up a phone and dial three digits.  Today, you have encrypted cellular devices, swipe to activate screen savers, and fewer landlines than ever in the past 20+ years.  This makes to 911 procedures a tad more complex than it used to be.

Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)

The Plain Old Telephone Service or POTS line has been the standard service offering fromPOTS Phone Uniden telephone service providers since 1900.  Although there have been quite a few enhancements to the system since then (touch tone dialing, caller id, call waiting, etc.), the concept is the same.  It is based on sending a signal over a copper wire loop between the customer and the telco service provider.  This copper wire pair allows for a loop that rings the phone and also provides the two-way audio.  911 on POTS lines is easy because it is a dedicated line.  The address to which the phone number is registered is the address sent to the emergency dispatcher when you call 911.  In addition, it is simple to teach, just pick up the phone and press 9 -1 -1.

Digital Landlines

Have you recently moved your phone line over to a combined package with your cable or internet provider such as Comcast, Suddenlink, Time Warner, or ATT?  If so, there is a high probability you are no longer on a POTS line and you have gone digital.  This is based on Voice Over IP or VoIP technology and sends the phone line as digital data.  Many providers are
now offering these services to move people away from the POTS infrastructure because the services are cheaper to provide via data streams.  They can also offer a broader array of services.  The good news is, if you did this with your local provider, in most cases, they take care of the proper 911 information routing for you.  This means the dispatcher still gets your address when you call 911 from your home just like when you had a POTS line.

There are other means of a digital landlines through non-local service providers such as Vontage, Magic Jack, or Google Voice which a user can set up themselves.  This is where 911 becomes a challenge.  These services all have different methods of how they handle a 911 calls from the user.  It is usually up to the user to configure the 911 settings and know the service provider’s capabilities or limitations.  The chart below shows some popular VoIP phone service providers which are not based to a local coverage area and their 911 options and links, as well as their 911 capabilities page.

Service Provider

(link included if available)

E911 Option
Vonage Yes
Magic Jack Yes
Google Voice No
Call Centric Yes
Anveo Yes Yes

obi200 VoIP Phone System,

911 and E911

The universal emergency number for the United States was established in 1968 and has been serving the country progressively for almost 50 years.  By the year 2000, approximately 93% of the United States was covered by some type of 911 service.  In short, 911 was designed for use on the POTS phone system and provided the caller’s name, address, and phone number to the dispatcher when a 911 call was made.  With the introduction of cellphones, a gap in 911 was introduced.  Now wireless callers could place a 911 call, but location data and callback information was unavailable to the dispatcher.  If you got disconnected or could not talk, they were unable to readily obtain the information needed to get responders to your location.  This was also the case with VoIP services (listed above).  Fr example, if you had Vonage and lived in an area with just basic 911, your callback number or location will not be transmitted to the dispatcher.  More information on VoIP and interactions with 911 can be found here on the FCC’s website.

E911 was the next evolution to overcome this hurdle.  Phase I of E911 introduced the capability for location and callback number data to be send through 911 for VoIP and cellular calls.  For cellular calls the cellular tower location used for the call was sent to the dispatcher.  Phase II enabled the submission of more precise data from the cellular device including latitude and longitude.  Is some cases this could get the location to as close as 50 to 300 meters.  The map below shows the nation and its current 911 capabilities as of 2013.

Source: NENA 911 Deployment Report 2013Source: NENA 911 Deployment Report 2013


The next steps are known as NG911 or Next Generation 911 which includes text, photo, video transmissions as well.  Some 911 regions in Texas such as the Greater Harris County 911 District or Brazos County Emergency District have started this transition with the adoption of text to 911.

Practice, Practice, Practice

With so many evolutions in communications technology it is imperative to practice dialing 911 with your children.  We recommend training with all the capabilities you have available (i.e. landline, cellular, both).  Landlines are the simplest and most foolproof option.  As you venture into cellular devices, the process gets more complex, especially for younger children.  Here are a few considerations to include in your training.

Show Them the Phones

Show your children where all of the phones are in your home.  This will help them identify where they can go to make an emergency call.

Parents of Young Children, Keep The Landline

Parents with small children should consider keeping a POTS landline or digital landline with a local provider until their children can understand the process of making a 911 call on a cell phone.  Dialing 911 from a landline is easier than dialing from a cell phone. It may cost you a couple extra bucks for a few years, but your life is worth the cost.

A Song Sets It into Memory

Sometimes a song is easier to remember than a procedure for children.  We taught our children the following:

“When you have an e-mer-gency, press 9  1  1 green.”

We chose “9  1  1 green” because the “send” or “talk” button is green on the majority of cordless or cellular phones which is what our children are most likely to run into at family homes.  It just adds a reminder, that they have to “press the send” button to make the call.  Nothing worse than getting the procedure but not “sending” the call.  Pick lyrics and a rhythm that meets your family’s needs.

Add a Label to the Phone

Even if children are trained to dial 911, in a high stress situation, they can forget the details.  Consider placing a “9 1 1” or “9 1 1  Green” label on the handset.  Build this into your training, it can serve as a reminder in an emergency.

Be Loud and Proud

For parents with shy children, this is something to work through. It can be intimidating for a child to talk with someone they don’t know on the other end of the phone, but speaking quietly can delay an emergency response.  This is something that can be worked through over time.  Have them speak with people they know (i.e. relatives, etc) on the phone to work through the intimidation factor.  Let them know they need speak “loud and proud” when they are on a phone call.

Landline 911 Procedure

Dialing 911 from a landline is the simplest procedure of them all.

  1. Pick up the landline phone
  2. Listen for a dial tone
  3. Press 9 1 1
  4. Wait for the dispatcher to answer
  5. Tell the dispatcher about the problem

Unplug and Rehearse

If you have a landline phone, you can unplug the phones from the wall and have them practice calling 911 without a call going through.  If you don’t hear a dial tone, you are ready to practice.  This helps build muscle memory and engages Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic learning styles.

This is not an option on most cellular devices, as there is no way to disconnect them.  Even cell phones that are not activated or have no SIM card still allow an emergency call to go through.  To test with a cell phone, you will need to engage your emergency dispatcher using our process below.

iPhone 911 Procedure (from a blank screen)

Your iPhone procedures may vary slightly based on your iPhone model and current iOS version.  This procedure was developed on the with the iOS version 9.3.3.

  1. Press either the home button or power button to turn on the screen. Food for thought: whichever button you use, stick with it. It is easier to remember just one button that to risk confusion with two.  I prefer the power button because on newer iPhones that are fingerprint enabled, it will not unlock the phone like the home button will.  When the phone is unlocked, the emergency call procedure changes and becomes more complex.
    iPhone Emergency Call Pic 1
  2. Once the screen is lit, swipe the screen from left to right which will bring up the keypad.
    iPhone Emergency Call Pic 2
  3. Press on the “Emergency” text to the bottom left of the keypad. This will bring up the dialing keypad.iPhone Emergency Call Pic 3
  4. Press 9 1 1 Green
  5. Wait for the dispatcher to answer
  6. Tell the dispatcher about the problem

Android 911 Procedure (from a blank screen)

The android process may vary slightly based on your android phone model and current android version.  This procedure was developed on a Samsung Galaxy S5 with Android version 6.0.1.

  1. Press either the power button or home button to turn on the screen.
    Android Emergency Call Pic 1
  2. Slide up on the phone key which will bring up the “Emergency Call” button at the bottom of the screen.
    Android Emergency Call Pic 2
  3. Press the “Emergency Call” button, this will bring up the emergency dialer.
    Android Emergency Call Pic 3
  4. Dial 9 1 1 and press the green call button in the bottom center of the screen.
  5. Wait for the dispatcher to answer
  6. Tell the dispatcher about the problem

Engage Your Emergency Dispatchers

The more realistic you can make the training process, the more beneficial it can be for the child.  In addition, you never truly know how your 911 is routed until you give it a try.  Many emergency dispatch centers will allow you to “test” 911 with your children during low call times.  If you live in an urban area, this may not be an option, but there is only one way to find out.

First you have to identify who handles your 911 calls.  To do this, contact your local police department and ask for the non-emergency phone number to the PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) covering your area. This where your 911 call is first received. In some cases, it may be your local police, and you already in the right place, but have them confirm.  Once you know the number to your local PSAP, give them a call on the non-emergency line.  Tell them you are teaching your child to dial 911 and you would like them to actually make the call and speak with the dispatcher.  If they grant you permission, there are still a few things to take care of before the call:

  • get the call takers name and agency who gave you permission
  • provide the call taker with your child’s name (the child that will be calling 911)
  • if you are using a scenario, give them an overview of the scenario, so they know it is not an actual emergency.
  • give them your name, your address, and your call back information
  • give them an approximate time frame for when you will be calling
  • ask if there are any other agencies you need to contact and ask for permission before doing the test. If so, go through this same process and provide the other agencies with this same information discussed here.

Once this information is provided, there is one more step before having your child make the call.  You need to pick up the phone as the parent and make a test call first.  This ensures that your call is correctly routed and is going to the PSAP you spoke with previously.  When the dispatcher answers, state your name and that this is a test call, and ask if it is the agency/PSAP who gave you permission.  This is extremely important testing with cellular devices, as they do not always route to the proper PSAP based on the level of 911 capabilities you have in your area. If the call is not routed to the proper PSAP, they will not know it is a test call and you may end up with responders at your front door.  If for some reason your call is routed improperly to a different PSAP, you need to go through the pre-call process again with the PSAP who is receiving the call.

Now you are ready, make sure you are in your timeframe and have your child make the test call.  After the test call has progressed as far as it can go, take the phone from your child and let the dispatcher know again thatit is a test call and you are training your child to dial 911, give them your name and who you spoke with that authorized the test call.

Once you are completely done with your testing, follow-up with a final call to your PSAP to let them know you are complete with your training.  Thank them for taking the time to teach your child the 911 call process.

In Summary

911 is a system that has been in place for nearly 60 years and has adapted to technology as it has developed.  It is a system that saves lives and is more than capable of being used by young children.  As a parent, it is just as important to understand the challenges new technology brings to the 911 calling process as it is to teach our children to call for help.  Without understanding the technology challenges we have discussed here, it becomes more difficult to make 911 calls on mobile devices and digital landlines leaving your family vulnerable.  The only true way to know how 911 works for you, is to test the process with your 911 call centers.Phone Trio iPhone, POTS, Cordless POTS

Tomorrow morning, your child walks into the room and wakes you up, something that is usually the other way around.  You have overslept and feel quite lethargic.  As you wake and get out of bed, you suddenly feel light headed, dizzy and nauseated, with a strong pain in your left arm.  As you are headed to the rest room, your child asks you “mommy/daddy, are you ok?”, as you go to respond to them, your lightheadedness becomes overwhelming and you blackout on the floor.  Can your child get help for you by dialing 911?

If you have any personal experiences with dialing 911 or see something we missed, please comment below.  If this information was useful for you please follow us on social media using the icons to the right of the page or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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