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 two questions:

  • If faced with an emergency, would your child know what to do?
  • Has your child been given the tools he needs to confront an emergency calmly and with confidence?

It's true that most school-age children are taught about emergency services. Children who live in areas where the service is available usually learn about 9-1-1 before they learn their own telephone numbers. 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.

But 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

Pennsylvania paramedic and firefighter Tom Johnson visits schools to present "Make the Right Call," a program designed by the US Fire Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

The program combines videos, handouts, and role playing to teach children that emergency medical service professionals are friendly helpers. Children learn how the emergency medical system operates, how to use it, problems with misuse of the system, and how to identify an emergency.

Johnson teaches children to call 9-1-1 or the emergency number in their area if they think someone's life is in danger. Even if they feel unsure, they should call, stresses Johnson. Fear of getting into trouble for using the system in a non-emergency can make a child reluctant to call for help. "Kids need to know they won't get in trouble for calling - that the adult will sort things out later."

Conversely, Johnson teaches the dangers of making prank calls to emergency service providers. He warns children that dialing 9-1-1 frivolously can divert emergency personnel away from the people that really need emergency services. He tells youngsters that 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.

As soon as they're old enough, children should be taught how to use a telephone and should memorize the emergency number for their area. Setting up pretend situations will reinforce this information.

"Practice makes perfect," notes Johnson, especially in a real emergency. Role playing 9-1-1 calls with your children will familiarize them with the procedures followed by emergency medical personnel. Children should practice responding to the questions a dispatcher would ask in an actual emergency.

"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.

Don't rely on the fact that the number called from will automatically show up on the dispatcher's screen. Unless an area has enhanced 9-1-1, this doesn't 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 he doesn't understand. 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 go to the front of 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 he's to blame for an accident, his natural instinct may be to run away. Johnson teaches his students the importance of staying to help. "If you make a mistake," he reminds them, "helping is the best way to make things better."

Steve Giancristoforo works out of the Delaware County (Pennsylvania) Communications Center, which handles 1250 calls per day. He says that it's 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 " doesn't 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," Giancristoforo 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. However, because electrical blackouts will often delete the contents of programmable phones, the numbers should be posted right by all household telephones as well.

Babysitters should know the address of the home at which they're babysitting and be able to identify the nearest intersection. They must be provided with a telephone (land line and/or cell) or beeper 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, cell phone and beeper numbers, and 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 his caretaker) has the necessary skills to handle emergency situations. Take steps today to avoid tragedy tomorrow.