Calling 911: What you need to know

By Barbara Pierce

“911. What is the nature of your emergency?” came the reassuring voice of the 911 operator at 2:15 a.m. My husband was unconscious and having trouble breathing.

I’d never called 911 before. I was scared. I’d never dealt with EMTs, with medical emergencies. I had a steep learning curve that night.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to call 911 in an emergency. Dealing with a medical emergency is very stressful, but knowing how to effectively call for help can save valuable time—and lives.

John J. Raymond Director of Emergency Services, Herkimer County, shared these tips:

Know the address/location you’re calling from: The number one thing dispatchers need to know is your address or location, he advises. “If 911 doesn’t know your location, it makes it very difficult to send help.”

Many people assume that we can trace their number to their location, he said. That’s true for landline phones, not always for cellphones. We have the capability of GPS location on most cellular 911 calls but there are cases where that may not work.

If you’re traveling and not familiar with the area of the emergency, give landmarks or names of business in the area.  Knowing the name of the road you are on is important.  Even a number on a mailbox is helpful.

Be prepared for questions:  The 911 dispatcher will ask you a lot of questions, your name, phone number, and pertaining to the type of emergency. Many of these questions are asked for verification purposes.

While the questions are being asked, the information is relayed to first responders by another dispatcher. The dispatcher can give you life savings instructions while other dispatchers notify and relay information to first responders, explained Raymond. It may seem like the dispatcher is asking too many questions and it’s taking a long time for responders to arrive, and the dispatcher is asking a lot of questions. But it’s important for you to remain as calm as possible.

Don’t hang up until the dispatcher tells you it’s okay. The dispatcher may want to keep communication open, may tell you how to begin caring for the injured/sick person. In my emergency, the dispatcher was very reassuring, talked me through doing CPR, kept me from flying apart as I waited.

If you haven’t been given instructions about what to do, use the time to move obstructions such as furniture out of the way to give the responders space to work and gather up the medication the person has been taking.

Knowing the medication the person has taken is essential. It’s a good idea to have the bottles or list easily accessible; this is what I learned. Now I’ve taped up both our lists.

Using 911 appropriately:

Many medical calls we receive at 911 are not true emergencies that need a trip by ambulance to the ER, but could be handled outside the emergency services system, said information recommended by Edward Stevens, Oneida County Director of Emergency Services.

Called “Ask Amy,” this information can be found at

“Precious limited resources are wasted on non-emergencies that can be handled routinely,” says Ask Amy. An emergency is “an unexpected and usually dangerous situation that calls for immediate action.”

What if I live alone?

Hiding a key outside your home or giving a key to a trusted neighbor allows rescuers to gain entry without damaging property or having to wait for you to respond, suggests Ask Amy.

“Having a list with your name, date of birth, medical problems and allergies, and all medications with dosages is helpful to the responders and physicians should you be transported to the hospital. A good place to tack it up is on the refrigerator or someplace that is visible and will be noticed by rescuers.”

Calling 911 alone is sufficient; if you cannot speak, the dispatcher will send police to the location of the call.

Consider a Medical Alert System if you live alone, so that you can get an emergency response without the need to call 911.

Can I text 911?

Oneida County residents now have the option to text 911.  However, only text when you cannot call. This is only available in limited areas and only for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon users at this time.

To initiate a Text-to-911, enter 911 as your contact and write a text message, including the address of the emergency and a brief description of the emergency.

When help arrives: Once the EMTs have arrived, don’t crowd them, but make sure one person is available to answer questions.

As pets can become aggressive in an emergency, put them in another room, safely out of the way.

My emergency ended okay and is now just a memory. If there’s a next time, I’ll be better prepared.