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8 Times You Should Call 911—and 7 Times You Shouldn’t

Emergencies are confusing: It's not always clear when you need to dial 911. Here's what the experts advise.

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Call: You or someone else is experiencing a severe allergic reaction

If anyone begins showing signs of a severe allergic reaction—increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, swelling tongue—call 911. Severe allergic reactions can lead to death quickly—in under an hour—so you may not have enough time to get to the emergency department. Emergency responders can give immediate treatment with epinephrine.

“Parents and caregivers are not trained medical professionals, so making a medical decision as to whether an allergic reaction is 911-worthy can be challenging,” says Gerald Lavandosky, MD a pediatric critical care doctor at Pediatric Critical Care of South Florida. “Factors that need to be considered when calling 911 include distance to the nearest emergency department, traffic, weather conditions, and transportation capabilities of the family.” Dr. Lavandosky says mild allergic reactions can be brought to a doctor’s office or emergency department by a family member, but when respiratory symptoms, swelling of the mouth, drooling, or difficulty breathing show up, it’s time to call 911.

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Don’t call: You have food poisoning

While uncomfortable and important to treat properly, a call to 911 is not necessary. You can treat the symptoms—often vomiting, nausea, and stomach cramps—at home. Call your doctor’s office and speak with a nurse. On the weekends, most offices have an answering service that can provide basic information.

If you can’t get in touch with your doctor’s office and need guidance for properly treating conditions, including food poisoning, you don’t have to resort to calling 911. You can ring your police department’s non-emergency line. “The difference between 911 and the non-emergency number is how the phone system works in the dispatch center,” says RJ Beam, a police officer, volunteer firefighter, and blogger at rescuehumor.com, “911 calls come in on a special phone linked to a computer.” They also demand the attention of a 911 dispatcher, he says; taking up the line for a non-emergency could prevent someone in a life-and-death situation from getting timely help. Here are some of the craziest things 911 operators have heard on the job.

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Call: You or someone else is experiencing breathing problems

If you can’t catch your breath or someone is showing obvious distress when trying to inhale, it’s time to call for help. “If someone is having significant difficulty breathing, especially if they’re having severe symptoms, such as turning blue, severe wheezing, or what’s called ‘stridor,’ high-pitched breathing sounds, then call 911,” says Darria Long Gillespie, MD, a certified emergency department physician in Atlanta. “They need medications or treatments immediately that 911 can offer so they do not worsen on the way to the hospital.” Have a medical emergency? You need these 8 things to handle it on your own.

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Don’t call: You think you have a concussion

A bump to the head doesn’t automatically mean a 911 call—even if you think there may be a concussion. Most people can remain at home—as long as they’re closely monitored—and report to their doctor the next day for follow-up care. If, however, a loved one hits their head at a high speed—a fall or a car accident, for example—and begins bleeding from the head or face, has a seizure, cannot stand, begins vomiting, or loses consciousness, call 911. These are signs of a serious head injury. Don’t attempt to drive them, either: They’ll need paramedics to attend and move them. Likewise, if a person who’s had head trauma earlier begins to complain of a headache, shows signs of slurred speech, begins vomiting, or loses consciousness, seek emergency medical attention. Find out the secrets emergency room staff won’t tell you.

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Call: Someone passed out or is unresponsive

When a loved one isn’t responding to you, you have no way of knowing what happened—dial 911 and ask for paramedics. “Not only will you need the 911 responders to stabilize the patient, but by calling the 911 line the operator can give you important instructions to follow,” Dr. Long Gillespie says, “such as whether to consider doing CPR while you’re waiting.” You should never, ever do these 5 things in case of an emergency.

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Don’t call: Your child has a fever

Yes, it can be scary to see your child’s fever creep up, but a fever, even one over 100°F, is not an emergency. Try controlling the fever with a cool, damp washcloth and alternating doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. If an infant under three months old has a fever over 100.5°F, you should call the doctor. While not a 911 emergency, a physician needs to look at the child soon.

If the temperature goes over 104°F, take the child to the ER, advises the Seattle Children’s Hospital. And call 911 if the temp soars this high and your child becomes lethargic, has a seizure, or is complaining of a stiff neck. Temperatures that stay high for a long period of time can be damaging to your child’s brain and development. Teach these first aid tips to your kids now.

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Call: Someone is breaking into your house

Don’t take matters into your own hands if you suspect someone is attempting to burglarize your home. Call for help. “If you are asleep in bed and awake to the noise of someone in your home, you should call 911,” says Joshua Rogala, a criminal defense lawyer in Winnipeg, Canada. “You should never approach or pursue anyone you find in your home. The person could be armed, may be under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and could react violently if they come upon you.”

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Don’t call: A crime has already occurred

Vandalism, theft, stolen vehicle—all crimes that you find after they’ve already happened—don’t require 911 help. You can reach out to the police department through the non-emergency line, and they will dispatch an officer to you. “If you come home to find someone has broken in while you were away, you should be calling the non-emergency line,” Rogala says. “You and your property are no longer in immediate danger.” However, Rogala notes, you should call 911 when a serious crime has occurred, such as an assault or robbery, even if it’s now over. These serious crimes should be reported immediately.

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Call: You’re having an emergency and you’re alone

The standards shift if you’re alone: If you’re experiencing a medical emergency, call 911; waiting too long to see how serious your condition is may leave you past the point where you’re able to make the call. “If you’re having chest pain, shortness of breath, difficulty with vision, or speech and you are alone, call 911,” Dr. Long Gillespie says. “Do not try to drive yourself to the hospital.” These 12 tips might help you save your own life when you’re alone.

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Don’t call: You had a car accident and no one is injured

“For automotive collisions in which no one is injured, you don’t need to call 911,” Rogala says. “If someone is injured or the crash has created a traffic hazard, such as a light stand being knocked down, then you should call 911.” Rogala notes you should also call 911 if you suspect one of the drivers in a car accident is intoxicated. Otherwise, for everyday fender benders, reach out through the non-emergency line.

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Call: Someone driving a car appears to be drunk

“One of the most frequently under-reported criminal offenses that warrants a call to 911 is when someone spots an impaired driver on the roadway,” Rogala says. “Impaired driving is a very serious offense.” Rogala notes that many impaired drivers end up injuring themselves or others, or even causing deaths. “These kinds of tragedies can be completely avoided. When a person spots an impaired driver, he or she should contact the police immediately so the police can intercept the vehicle.”

Be prepared to help the first responders when you call with some basic information: “The police will ask you details about the driver, the vehicle, and where the vehicle is headed.” However, Rogala adds, keep yourself at a safe distance so you don’t risk getting involved in an accident.

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Call: There’s a fire

Always consider a fire an emergency situation—they can quickly spread in homes, offices, cars, and other structures. Call for emergency responders. “Even in circumstances in which you think you can put it out, you should always call 911 for a fire,” Rogala says. “Fire can spread very quickly, and within minutes, an entire home can be engulfed in flames.” The reason we dial 911 for emergencies is a grisly one.

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Don’t call: Someone experiences minor burns

Fire is not the only potential cause of burns. Hot liquid, hot pans, appliances, hot pavement, electrical currents, and chemicals can all cause minor to severe burns. However, many of these burns can be safely treated at home. Call the non-emergency line or your doctor’s office for guidance on properly treating minor burns at home.

However, do call 911 if the person inhaled smoke, was burned in a fire, or the burned area is larger than the palm of your hand. The same is true for any burn caused by chemicals or electricity: They may need treatment from a medical professional; plus, emergency response experts may be able to secure the source of the burn to prevent additional injuries and harm.

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Call: Someone has fallen and appears to be injured

Moving a person after a fall can do more harm than good. It’s impossible to ascertain spinal injuries, damage to organs, and other issues that could become worse the moment an injured person is moved. “If they have a possible injury to their neck and spine, then you want to call 911 immediately,” Dr. Long Gillespie says. “You do not want to move them on your own.” Emergency responders can secure and safely move the injured person to prevent movement until they can be can be X-rayed and imaged to rule out dangerous internal injuries. Check out the first-aid items you may already have in your car.

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Don’t call: Someone has been cut

Don’t reach for the phone and call 911 for mild cuts and lacerations. You should be able to wrap the would up and get yourself to a doctor’s office, after-hours clinic, or emergency room. However, wounds that are deep, won’t stop bleeding, or are very large need to be secured by emergency services before the person can be moved. Blood loss may accelerate and become life-threatening if they’re not properly bandaged. Call 911 for these severe injuries. Next, learn the 16 secrets 911 operators won’t tell you.

Kimberly Holland
Kimberly Holland is a lifestyle writer and editor based in Birmingham, Alabama. When not organizing her books by color, Holland enjoys toying with new kitchen gadgets and feeding her friends all her cooking experiments.