Sometimes it’s necessary to call 911 or emergency services to report a crime that is occurring, a potential immediate threat, the sudden severe illness or injury of yourself or someone else, or for numerous other reasons. There are also plenty of situations that may warrant a call to the police, a hospital or the fire department but may not be emergencies. In other words, sometimes it isn’t necessary to call 911 because the situation you plan to report is not immediate, not immediately hazardous, or is too minor to require police, firefighter or emergency medical visiting you right away.
911 or the emergency services number in your area exists to deal with, not surprisingly, emergency situations. An emergency in this sense can be defined as one that poses immediate danger to yourself or other people. Here are a couple ideas of an emergency:
- Someone becomes suddenly dangerously ill.
- Someone crashes a car in front of you.
- You notice smoke in your home or that of a neighbor’s.
- You hear gunshots.
- You see or hear an incident of domestic violence
In these cases and in numerous others, calling 911 is a completely justifiable act.
There are times when you might simply want to report the results of a minor crime, have a simple question, or report the theft of a small item. In these cases, instead of calling 911 you would look for your local police or fire department’s phone number in the phone book. Ask yourself whether a situation can wait for a few hours or needs to be handled right away.
The trouble with calling 911 when no emergency truly exists is that you run the risk of taking up a dispatcher’s time when you don’t really need to. This could, especially in a large urban or suburban area make it harder for someone with a truly emergent situation to reach 911 when needed. 911 doesn’t exist to answer simple questions, but instead exists solely to help dispatch emergency crews as needed when a crime, serious illness or immediate fire hazard exists.
Here are a few examples of when not to call 911:
- You notice graffiti on your home, or in your neighborhood.
- You have a question about the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning but don’t suspect it in your home.
- You or a family member has a minor illness.
- Your bike is missing when you come home.
- Your pet is missing.
- You suspect that a neighbor may be a drug dealer or is conducting ongoing illegal activity that doesn’t pose an immediate threat.
- You think a neighbor’s animal may be neglected.
These types of situations should all be handled by calling during regular police or fire department hours, or by calling your physician. The goal in determining whether or not to call 911 is to decide whether your situation is truly an emergency. Different rules exist for different people.
A child who is home alone and fears a situation could be an emergency should definitely call 911. Dispatchers tend to want to get these calls even if a child’s report doesn’t really constitute an emergency. If you suspect any situation to be immediately or in the very near future dangerous, then it is important to call 911 instead of waiting.
On the other hand, when you know a situation is not immediately dangerous, and will not result in risk to anyone’s life or major property, don’t call 911. Instead wait, and talk to your local police or fire department, or your doctor or local hospital. Any time you have doubts about waiting, 911 will of course take your call, and it’s important not to worry about inconveniencing a dispatcher. It is better to be safe than sorry when a potential hazard exists.