Children Come Calling

Josh McFadden

Josh McFadden


Josh McFadden

Every dispatcher has stories to tell about both good calls and not-so-good calls.

There are the unfortunate calls that, despite the dispatcher’s best efforts, end in tragedy. There are those that should have been made to the non-emergency number, and there are those that never should have been made, such as a prank call. There are times when callers are irate and combative, not understanding why you’re asking so many questions. Other callers may be drunk, unable to speak, or frantic.

Men and women of all backgrounds and ages call emergency numbers for a multitude of reasons. Every call offers different challenges and opportunities to exercise your skill and knowledge of the Priority Dispatch® protocols, and every caller will bring a different demeanor and respond differently to your instructions and questions.

Like a box of chocolates, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re going to get.”

Chances are today you’ll take a call from a child, and that won’t necessarily mean the call will be more challenging than a call from an adult. Some dispatchers might even say child callers are easier to communicate with than adult callers.

More under control than their grown-up counterparts?

When you think of children, perhaps you picture in your mind a boy or girl throwing a temper tantrum when things don’t go according to plan. Maybe you see a child crying or screaming, unable to express his or her feelings. But when it comes to making 911 calls, the experts have a different opinion. After all, the EMD’s First Law of Children simply states, “The children will be calmer than their parents.”

In Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch, the authors elaborate on this law by explaining the following: “Some children sound strangely calm in the face of crisis. Perhaps they do not fully appreciate the gravity of a serious medical emergency, or perhaps they have not learned to be as anxious as older people. A true emergency may exist regardless of how calm a child sounds during the telephone interrogation.”1

In an odd twist, a child’s innocence and naivety might be to your advantage as a telecommunicator. While an adult may understand the implications and enormity of the situation, these realizations (understandably) have a tendency to send the caller into a frenzy. The adult caller may very well be pleading for you to intervene when a spouse, child, parent, or other loved one is on the brink of death. Therefore, it may be reasonable to accept that the caller will have difficulty speaking clearly or may be yelling, shouting obscenities, refusing to listen, or crying uncontrollably.

Those who have been in the emergency response business for a while say children often don’t exhibit the same behaviors.

“Child callers are special and always a pleasure to speak with,” said Tammy Jewell, Acting Manager, Communications, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (Canada). “They, in my experience, are typically calmer than an adult would be in the same situation as they are used to being given direction.”

John Hinkle, Supervisor/Trainer with Gallatin County 911 in Bozeman, Montana (USA), agrees. He said in his experience, children in the age range from 4 to 12 who call for emergencies are rarely frantic or difficult to talk to. He also said they’re always truthful.

“Whenever I have had to deal with child callers, they have always been super calm,” he said. “The one thing about child callers that separates them from adult callers is they don’t lie; they can usually tell you exactly what is going on and they always answer questions honestly.”

What they’re calling about

There’s no limit to what children can call about, but recent history shows that many call emergency numbers when a parent or guardian has overdosed on drugs. To illustrate what an enormous problem prescription drug abuse is becoming and why so many young children are calling for this issue, consider that in 2015 in the state of Ohio (USA) alone, 2,934 children were taken into state custody because of parental opioid abuse. In that same U.S. state, 2,590 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, an astonishing rise from 489 deaths 10 years earlier.2

Recent highly publicized cases in which children called emergency response because of adults overdosing on drugs include two parents in Centerville, Ohio, found dead by their children, ages 12, 9, and 6.3 Also, a 5-year-old in Sharon, Pennsylvania (USA), called 911 in March 2017 after finding his 30-year-old parents unresponsive after overdosing on Oxycodone.4 In June 2017, a 9-year-old from Akron, Ohio, placed a call to 911, reporting that his 1-year-old baby brother was unresponsive. The baby had been playing with a baggie that contained opioids.5

Reasons children call include burglary and home invasion, including a brave 11-year-old from Orlando, Florida (USA), who hid in a closet in her bedroom and called 911 while three robbers broke into her home and tried to get into her room.6

It’s also not uncommon for children to report a parent who is driving drunk, such as when a 12-year-old Ohio boy call 911 on his mother who had consumed vodka before getting behind the wheel.7

Jewell said most of the child calls her center takes are for a sick parent.

Challenges and how to help

Clearly, children have the gift of staying calm even during the most frightening moments of their lives. Sometimes they may not fully realize the implications of the situation. However, because of their age, they are inexperienced and may not be able to express themselves as well as an adult could. Many of the youngest callers don’t know their own address or phone number. It’s critical for you, as the telecommunicator, to provide guidance and reassurance.

To help get them through these scary situations, Hinkle tries to talk to the children about things they can relate to.

“One of the things I have dealt with young kids is they may be calm, but they are really scared, and we have to do everything we can to help them,” he said. “I have asked them about pets, school, vacations, favorite hobbies, and what TV shows they like just to keep their mind off the situation.”

Jewell has similar advice to help children explain what the problem is and to stay calm.

“One of the challenges may be not knowing the address or the phone number or what the problem is,” she said. “They may have a harder time articulating specifically what is going on at the scene or with the patient. Some tips and tricks: Ask for the child’s name, speak to them at their level, and always stay on the phone with him until help arrives.”

In Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch, the following tips are given to telecommunicators when speaking with children:8 1. Ask to speak to an adult. Get as much information from the child as possible, and then ask to speak to an adult if one is present.

2. Get to the child’s level. Opinions will expand the older the child is, but keep in mind the tendency for people to regress in crisis. This is true in children as well. Keep the conversation elementary.

3. Does the child know his or her home address or last name? Be exact, and assume nothing. Is the child calling from his or her own home? If a child goes out to look at the house number, understand that the child may not read from left to right or from top to bottom. Sometimes a child can look for addresses on letters or bills that are near the telephone. Still, the child may read the return address instead of the correct one. Another method is to inquire whether there are any easily recognizable landmarks nearby such as a school, store, or playground.

4. Does the child know the phone number? Asking the child to read the number off the phone may work, assuming the child does not read the numbers next to the push buttons.

5. Tell the child not to hang up and to always come back to the phone. Be specific. Anticipate that the child may not realize it is necessary to return to or stay on the phone and that giving them specific instructions to return to the phone may keep the situation under control.

Writers at the widely read publication The Guardian suggest that parents teach their children how to use phones in locations other than the home, such as hotel rooms and offices, where one must dial “9” first before dialing the number.9

Help them, and they’ll help you

Calm, collected, and honest, children are also usually petrified and confused when they call you for help. Patience and compassion on your part will go a long way.

Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch states, “Hearing a child on the telephone asking for help raises anxieties in practically everyone. Adults want to help children. It is natural to feel bothered by circumstances that indicate missing adult supervision. In one dramatic case, a 2½-year-old child called 911 because the babysitter was unconscious and bleeding from the head. The dispatcher worked with the child for about 20 minutes before the right combination of information led to the discovery of the address.”

It’s natural to feel distress when a child calls with an emergency, but the best way to help them is to stay calm yourself.

Whether in life-and-death struggles or for the tamer calls, children are looking to you for help. Though they present unique challenges an adult caller might not offer, a young child just might bring a smile to your face on another otherwise difficult day under the headset.


1 Clawson JJ, Dernocoeur KB, Murray C. Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch. Fifth Edition. International Academies of Emergency Dispatch: Salt Lake City: 2014.

2 “Child Alerts 911 Mom Driving High on Heroin.” NBC Nightly News. NBCnews.com. 2017; March 22. http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/terrified-child-heard-calling-911-as-parents-overdose-while-driving-904227907659 (accessed June 30, 2017).

3 Bever L. “‘They’re not waking up’: Four children call 911 after their parents’ suspected drug overdose.” Washington Post. 2017; March 21. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/03/21/theyre-not-waking-up-four-children-call-911-after-their-parents-suspected-drug-overdose/?utm_term=.090620c8d0ea (accessed July 3, 2017).

4 “5-year-old child calls 911 after parents overdose on drugs.” WRBL.com. Nexstar Broadcasting. 2017; March 6. http://wrbl.com/2017/03/06/5-year-old-child-calls-911-after-parents-overdose-on-drugs/ (accessed July 3, 2017).

5 Dill J. “9-year-old calls 911 after baby overdoses on opiate; mom arrested on unrelated charges.” Fox 8 Cleveland. WJW. 2017; June 2. http://fox8.com/2017/06/02/9-year-old-calls-911-after-baby-overdoses-on-opiate-police-still-looking-for-mother/ (accessed July 3, 2017).

6 “Child hides in closet, calls 911 during home invasion before culprit crashes car on 417.” WFTV9. Cox Media Group. 2016; Dec. 21. http://www.wftv.com/news/local/child-hides-in-closet-calls-911-during-home-invasion-before-culprits-crash-car-on-417/477835269 (accessed July 3, 2017).

7 “Boys calls 911 on mom, tells police she’s driving drunk.” New York Post. NYP Holdings, Inc. 2016; June 7. http://nypost.com/2016/06/07/boy-calls-911-on-mom-tells-police-shes-driving-drunk/ (accessed July 3, 2017).

8 See note 1.

9 Tabachnick C. “We teach US kids to dial 911 for help, but too often that doesn’t work.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 2014; Jan. 14. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/14/emergency-services-dial-911-phone-system-problems (accessed July 3, 2017).