Calling 911: What You Need to Know In An Emergency


April is National 911 Education Month, making it the perfect time to make sure you know what's involved in calling 911! Hard to believe, but the 900 system has only been in use 40 years, and in some rural areas, it’s still not available. In western Washington and Oregon, we’re lucky to have the service available to everyone.

This month is a great time to remind your family about the importance of calling 911 in an emergency situation. Considering King County alone gets 5,000 emergency calls per day, according to an article in the Renton Reporter, knowing when – and when NOT  – to call 911 leaves the line open for those who truly need emergency assistance.  

When Its OK to Dial 911

Only call 911 for serious medical emergencies, fires, crimes in progress or other life threatening situations.

When NOT to dial 911

You should never be calling 911 for the following reasons:

  • Not an emergency
  • Neighborhood or nearby noise
  • Parking complaints
  • Crimes in which suspects are not in the immediate area
  • Suspicious activity in your area for which you’re not sure it’s criminal activity
  • Directory assistance
  • To get information
  • Paying traffic tickets
  • About your pet
  • Flat tire or car breakdown
  • Practicing with children to teach them how to dial 9-1-1

Instead, read our blog post to get the non-emergency phone numbers for Snohomish, Pierce and King Counties as well as Portland.

Prep as You Dial

One of the first things the dispatcher will ask is the location of the emergency. If you’re unsure of the exact address, be prepared to provide cross streets or landmarks to help the dispatcher determine your location. This is especially important in large buildings, apartment complexes or rural locations.

Briefly explain why you’re calling. If you have a medical emergency, state that immediately. Otherwise, let the dispatcher ask questions, so they can quickly determine the type of help needed.

If you’re reporting a crime in progress, a description of the suspects will be very helpful. Read more in our blog post about the types of things to look for when describing suspects.

TIP: Stay on the phone until the dispatcher tells you it’s OK to hang up.

Using a Cell Phone to Call 911

Dispatchers usually see your phone number and address when you call 911 from a landline. But this is not always the case when you dial with a cell phone. Be prepared to give your full address or provide landmarks or cross streets to identify your location. You can also sign up for a free Smart911 account so the dispatcher can see your address and other information about members of your household based on the cell phone number you provide. See our blog post for details about Smart911.

Calling 911 in Error

If you call 911 by mistake, do NOT hang up. Instead, explain to the dispatcher that you made an error. Otherwise, dispatch may assume you need emergency help and will spend time and resources to get help to you.

Call When You Can, Text When You Can’t

In some places, you can send a text message to 911. You should only send a text if you’re unable to call 911 directly. Not all counties offer this service. But within the next few years, more should become available. See the following list of counties in our service area to determine whether they do or do not accept text messages in lieu of a phone call to 911.