[note]This article marks the second installment of our “Ready for Anything” series, where we look at some of the topics weighing on the minds of our grkids.com readers. You can see our first article on Stranger Danger here.[/note]

[pullquote_left] by April Hunt[/pullquote_left]

Does your child know who to call in an emergency? Do they know what actually constitutes an emergency?

A few weeks ago I decided it was time to talk to my 4-year-old about calling 911. We had been talking about dialing 911 (and subsequently, the police) for help when I had asked her, “Now, who do you call if there is an emergency?”

“I call Uncle Austin because he’s a good police officer!” she exclaimed proudly. Apparently my teaching skills left a bit to be desired. I had to explain to her that her beloved uncle, who lives in another state, wouldn’t get here as fast as the local 911 police officers. Fortunately her preschool teacher covered that topic in school the next week and straightened things out.

It’s commonly known that 911 is a central dispatch center designed to get help to people calling with an emergency. They are in contact with police, fire, and ambulance departments throughout your county and can send out the proper authorities depending on the situation. If your child needs help and there is no adult nearby who can help or call, they can dial 911.

When educating your child about this important system, “the first rule of thumb is to define what an emergency is and what it is not,” says Matt Groesser, Operations Manager of the Kent County Communications Center. “It’s helpful for the kids to take them through examples of what to do.”

Good questions to ask:

  • What do you do if Mom or Dad won’t wake up (or are unconscious)?
  • What do you do if someone is trying to come into your house who isn’t invited?
  • Do you call 911 if you’ve banged your knee and Mom is taking care of you? How about if your sister steals your toy?

My daughter’s preschool teacher made each of her students a mock phone with construction paper and highlighted the numbers 9 and 1 on the dial pad. Then the children practiced calling 911. I’ve role played with my daughter since then and she aced all of my questions. 

Something I hadn’t considered talking to my daughter about was how to actually dial 911 on my phone. Our household does not have a landline so help can only be summoned from my cellphone.

“There’s been a recent transition from landline to cellphone so now many households do not have a landline. It presents us with a little bit of a technology issue,” says Groesser.

Indeed, to call 911 on a cellphone children must locate the phone, open (or unlock) the device, navigate to the “call” section, and then dial.

Once a child manages to call 911, the operators are presented with another set of problems: locating that call.

“The info we get from cell phones is good but not great,” says Groesser. “Sometimes we’ll only get a location within a few thousand feet. There have been a lot of discussions in the industry about getting better information.”

Central Dispatches go through two phases in order to locate a cell phone. The first is to determine the tower the cellular call is connected through. In the second phase dispatchers can hone in on the general location of the cell phone call.

“Somewhere between 70-80 percent of the 911 calls we get in Kent County here come from cell phones. It’s a major change in the last four or five years: just an explosion of growth in the cellphone market,” adds Groesser.

Groesser encourages families to teach their children to call from a landline first if that is an option in your house. Those calls can be traced to your address. And if a landline isn’t available, “teaching your kid their address is absolutely huge,” he says.

Locating a child in distress who is calling from a cellphone is an emergency responder’s version of looking for a needle in a haystack.

“Sometimes (the signal) will bounce a mile one way, a few thousand feet the other way, and we don’t have a really good idea on where that person is,” says Groesser.

Groesser also encourages young children to learn their last name. “When we zoom in on our maps, we can see on our taxpayer database who owns that property.” So if they have a large radius where your cell phone is calling from your last name can help them pinpoint your location.

A great time to start the 911 conversation with your child is when they’re preschool age. You’ll know best when your child is at the right maturity level to grasp this information. Some three-year-olds may pick up on it easily while some children may not have that kind of maturity until they’re five or six.

“It’s good for kids to understand that fire trucks aren’t driving down their street everyday and how 911 fits into the system and when it’s good to use it,” says Groesser. “As you’re talking about fire fighters and police officers, you can explain the 911 process.”

How about your family? Does your child know how to dial 911 on a cell phone? How did you teach that skill?

By | 2017-05-12T14:44:11+00:00 April 9th, 2013|Categories: General, Real Life|3 Comments

About the Author:

April H
April is a stay-at-home-working-mom hybrid who balances her time between managing a household and using her editor brain to find all the typos in her friends’ emails. In her occasional free time she enjoys reading, quilting, antiquing and photography. She lives in Grand Rapids with her husband and three children.


  1. Pat July 25, 2013 at 10:47 am - Reply

    Even if you dont have landline service, you should purchase a $10 touchtone phone. Plugged into any existing phone jack you can dial 9-1-1 EVEN IF YOU DO NOT HAVE PAID PHONE SERVICE. Most useful for children if hooked up in an accessible location in the house.

  2. […] is the fourth installment of our Ready for Anything Series. Check out our Stranger Danger, 911  and Family Emergency Plan articles, […]

  3. Anastasia Giera April 28, 2013 at 6:19 am - Reply

    In addition to telephony, modern mobile phones also support a wide variety of other services such as text messaging, MMS, email, Internet access, short-range wireless communications (infrared, Bluetooth), business applications, gaming and photography. Mobile phones that offer these and more general computing capabilities are referred to as smartphones.^

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