About six months ago, I received a call at work from my wife telling me that she had just gotten off the phone with the Washington County Sheriff's Office and that the Cottage Grove Police had just left the house. She was in another part of the house doing laundry when our 4-year- old picked up the phone, dialed 911, and then hung up when the operator answered.
We had recently been reading a book at bedtime with him about what to do in the event of an emergency and how to call 911. The book even has a phone pad on the front and when the sequence of 9-1-1 is pressed it shouts, "Emergency! Call 911!" as sirens wail in the background. We had read the book to our oldest child when he was that age with no calls or officers showing up at the door, and were quite surprised that our 4-year-old had done this.
Fortunately, both the Washington County Sheriff's Office on the phone and the Cottage Grove Police officer at the door were understanding about the situation and said that sometimes children will call 911 after learning about it to try it out. Although we were impressed with the response time to the call, we felt bad about the false alarm and it left us wondering if there was anything else we could have conveyed to our 4-year-old to prevent the incident.
After researching the subject, I learned that close to 75 percent of calls made to 911 are non-emergency calls. Here are some tips and resources to use when teaching your children about calling 911, that will hopefully result in the police only showing up at the door in the event of a true emergency.
n Keep in mind that when teaching about 911, using the phone and dialing the numbers is the easy part. The difficult part for kids is not "how" to call, but knowing "when" to call.
n Ask your child about different scenarios and discuss what is considered an emergency. For example ask your child, "What would you do if you saw a fire in our house?" or "What would you do if someone skinned their knee?" or "What would you do if you found a family member unconscious?" Asking about different scenarios gives you a chance to discuss what constitutes an emergency and the correct action to take. It also provides your child with some points of reference to decide on their own whether or not a situation is an emergency.
n Let them know it is extremely important that 911 be called only in the event of an emergency and never as a joke. If it is not an emergency, it can delay a response to someone who really needs help.
n If there is an emergency and your child calls 911, tell them to stay calm, speak slowly and tell the operator what is wrong. Tell them to listen carefully and answer any questions and not hang up. Also tell them that it is okay to be frightened or scared in an emergency and that help will arrive soon after calling 911.
For additional information and tips about teaching your children about calling 911 see the following Web sites: http://kidshealth.org/kid/watch/er/911.html or http://firstaid.about.com/od/callingforhelp/ht/07_911_kids.htm or http://www.911.virginia.gov/kids/index.htm.
Shay Cleary is a member of the Cottage Grove Crime Prevention Board, a nonprofit citizen's organization that plans and coordinates crime prevention initiatives. For details, call Community Affairs Officer Gail Griffith, at (651) 458-6025.