Teaching your kid about 911 in the era of cell phones

Maggie and Aerin in yet another fire truck

We were out at a children’s event yesterday and the kids and Kim got in a little train that was driving around the parking lots at a park and I went to talk to the fire department who was there handing out hats.

The question I had was simple:

In the era of cell phones, is there a standard for calling emergency services?

In ye olden times little tykes could wander to the landline, pick up the receiver, and dial 911. The address would pop up on a dispatcher’s computer, a kid calling didn’t have to know jack other than to ask for help.

That’s not the case anymore. The fire department said there’s nothing they’re aware as far as instructional material for young children in the age of the iPhone, of and also gave me a huge warning I’d never heard of on modern 911 – it’s below. This isn’t clickbait it’s just less important than the above.

Fire engine in Sandy Oregon

There is no universal 911 method any more

With cell phones, not only does your kid have to remember 911 or be able to read the emergency contact prompts, but they have to know how to wake up your phone, what to do if it goes to the main screen because it’s in a trusted place, what to press, what to do if the phone is off, etc.

Not only that but different people’s phones behave differently.

Teach your kids to call emergency services on an iPhone

iphone Emergency CallThis is listed as the method on an iPhone 8 or later

  1. Press and hold the side button and one of the Volume buttons until the Emergency SOS slider appears.
  2. Drag the Emergency SOS slider to call emergency services. If you continue to hold down the side button and Volume button, instead of dragging the slider, a countdown begins and an alert sounds. If you hold down the buttons until the countdown ends, your iPhone automatically calls emergency services.

For an iPhone 7 or earlier it’s

  1. Rapidly press the side (or top) button five times. The Emergency SOS slider will appear. (In India, you only need to press the button three times, then your iPhone automatically calls emergency services.)
  2. Drag the Emergency SOS slider to call emergency services.

After the call ends, your iPhone sends your Emergency contacts a text message with your current location, unless you choose to cancel. If Location Services is off, it will temporarily turn on. If your location changes, your contacts will get an update, and you’ll get a notification about 10 minutes later.

Teach your kids to call emergency services on an Android

Dialing emergency services on an Android

I’m dealing with a Samsung Galaxy Note 8 here and will be adding different methods as I can find them.

Wake up the phone with the power button or by tapping the screen or however you personally do it.

If smart unlock has unlocked the phone, press the phone icon, dial 911, press call or send. If the phone icon’s not on the main screen of the phone, they’re going to need to know how to get into the launcher – which can be press a button, tap an icon, or slide over an icon depending.

If the phone’s locked, there’s an “Emergency Contacts” text somewhere on the lock screen. Pressing that will bring up a dialer where they can dial 911. Some phones this screen you can just press on and it will dial emergency services.

Custom lock screens can further change this process, so make sure your kid knows YOUR PHONE.

It wouldn’t hurt to let them know how to operate both an Android and an iPhone in case there’s ever an emergency and they have access to a phone they’ve ever played with before.

Calling emergency services on a Windows phone

Tell them to stop laughing and just dial 911.

OK, I’ll fully admit I’m clueless here. There’s supposedly an emergency call option. I haven’t seen a Windows phone in a long time. Let me know how to do this and I’ll update this.

Calling Emergency Services on Google Home / Alexa

There does not appear to be the ability to ask them to call 911 yet despite that odd Alexa story about it calling the police.

Calling Emergency Services on a Siri-enabled device

Siri calling 911

Hey Siri, call 911

Seems simple enough.

OK, the big warning:

911 doesn’t always work for location

This is from one guy with the fire department in Brentwood I was talking to, I’m just relaying this, they may be wrong (although it didn’t seem like it today,) who knows.

Your kid needs to know where they’re at because if you’re using WiFi calling (fairly common,) or if you’re not in a metro area, or you’ve got a crappy phone, chances are really good they’re not getting the location you’re at.

Your phone may not transmit location. Emergency services may only get the tower information. Writing down the address where you’re at where your child can see it and having a sheet of what to do can get your kid’s call responded to quickly.

Without going into too much off topic, I had to call 911 today (unrelated, although it does really sound like a made-up bit I’ll admit,) and they kept asking where I was – I was like Briley Parkway standing on a bridge over I-24. The dispatcher couldn’t locate me easily. I’m an adult who knew where I was and was not panicking and it still took a bit to get police and fire out there.

I did at one point ask if my phone wasn’t telling them where I was at and the dispatcher didn’t respond and asked some other questions. Due to the nature of what was going on at that point I didn’t really feel like saying “so I write for a moderately successful blog lemme ask you some questions…” also I was on 911 so yeah, no.

My 5yo forgets her name sometimes. Trying to remember her address in times of stress is not something I’m going to trust ever.

Oh yeah, you may be routed to a dispatcher not familiar with the area – a cell phone tower has a typical range of up to 45 miles. You could be talking to a dispatch center in the wrong area entirely.

Under a bridge? In a convention center? Checked in the bottom floor of a hotel with a messed up pico cell? Cheap GPS in your phone? Don’t count on GPS.

What can you do?

  • Keep your phone charged at all times and findable. Charge it in the same spot every time so your kid doesn’t have to go looking for it.
  • Have a sheet of paper with your address somewhere your kid can always see it.
  • If your kid can’t read, put pictures of things that sound like your street or something near your street. Example = a bell, a monster = Belmont.
  • Teach your kid how to unlock your phones. Chances are a pre-reading child will primarily have access to your phone, however see if you can teach them how to use other phones in case a daycare worker, babysitter, etc have an emergency.
  • If you don’t want your kid in your phone, teach them how to call emergency services. Usually this does not require unlocking your phone, so they can’t mess up your Boom Beach game.
  • Street address – try and drill that into them.
  • Don’t get into an accident that renders you unconscious or unable to help yourself. This should be read with the same ironic tone as “teach your 4yo their address and how to dial 911”
  • Have a landline or something they can just pick up.
  • Have your Home Assistant, which probably can call friends and family, have some names the kids can call in an emergency in case 911 can’t help them maybe Uncle Bob can call 911 for them.
  • Use an app to teach them how to use the number pad/911.

Help us

Got a universal app for teaching kids how to unlock any phone and call 911? Share it. Found a book on Emergency Services in the age of the butt dial? Let me know. Have a Windows phone and want to share screenshots, go for it. Want to write the universal guide and have us promote it, write away.

But wait, there’s more

So, chances are if your child is calling 911, you’re not able to respond to medics, officers, etc. Does your kid know your aunt’s phone number and name? Does your child know daddy’s real name and the place he works?

Don’t assume, make sure your contacts are set up as ICE contacts. Place any pertinent medical information there (such as diabetic, extremely allergic to sulfa drugs, etc.) You don’t have to specify relationship in an ICE contact, and most phones now have a picture so your kid can just point and say “that’s daddy”.

ICE contacts, at least on Android, are available to anyone who has the phone unlocked from the Emergency Contact screen.

Paul King

Paul King lives in Nashville Tennessee with his wife, two daughters and cats. He writes for Pocketables, theITBaby, and is an IT consultant along with doing tech support for a film production company.