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If I Have an Emergency, Who Should I Call First?

Written by | Updated July 15, 2020

It’s easy to panic in a stressful situation and immediately call 911. 

But calling 911 for non-emergencies takes a huge portion of the system’s resources from those in life-or-death situations. Plus, ambulances can cost thousands of dollars, and police can escalate a situation in non-emergencies.1 

This isn’t to say you should never call 911, but there are a few things you can do to handle an emergency before picking up the phone.

What is and isn’t an emergency? 

Before we dive in, let’s establish what is and isn’t an emergency. Emergencies are life-threatening situations that demand immediate attention. Heart attacks, choking, and fires are just a few examples of emergencies.

Handle the situation peacefully

Before calling 911, assess whether you can handle the situation yourself. For example, before sending the police to check on a “suspicious person,” consider whether it’s necessary to escalate things.

You could also consider talking to the person and asking if they need assistance. Chances are the situation isn’t as dangerous as you may initially think.

And if you feel threatened by someone, avoid reaching for a gun. A study by Harvard showed that guns usually lead to escalating a situation and are often used to intimidate rather than defend.2

Call on community services 

Your community may have more services than you realize for helping with emergencies.

Take note of local organizations that help with emergencies of all kinds. Compile a list of the resources to keep on your fridge or inside a cabinet door.

You’ll likely find local organizations that are better equipped than police, fire departments, or ambulance services when it comes to handling more nuanced emergencies.

Look for collectives that specialize in helping with domestic abuse, stray animals, mental health, and youth outreach.


These are just a few that we found:

Call your neighbors 

The people you know and love are sometimes the best resources in an emergency.

Whether it’s a ride to the hospital or a safe place to stay, creating a friendly environment on your street means neighbors can help you as much as you can help them when something serious comes up.

Getting to know your neighbors makes your street a friendlier and safer place to live. Learn how to start a neighborhood watch program in your area to keep everyone safe. Attending neighborhood council meetings and creating neighborhood phone trees are other ways to get to know people who live nearby and the concerns of your community.

Calling 911 

The 911 system has saved countless lives by contacting emergency services in life-threatening situations and medical emergencies. And that’s what it should be used for. 

Cases like fires, heart attacks, and serious traffic collisions, for example, are appropriate ways to use this service. But false emergencies and prank calls can tie up the lines and take valuable time from others who need help. 

Many cities have non-emergency numbers tied to fire and police departments. A simple call to 311 can get you help in a situation without taking up an emergency operator’s time.

Abusing 911

Abusing 911 takes valuable time from emergency dispatchers. While the National Emergency Number Association doesn’t have exact numbers, areas like San Francisco have reported up to 40 percent of 911 calls are non-emergencies.4

Non-emergencies can be noisy neighbors, minor injuries or illnesses, or stray animals. These situations can be handled by calling someone other than 911 dispatchers.

Many police, fire, and medical facilities have a non-emergency number that you can contact if a stressful (but non-urgent) situation arises. Beyond first responders, it's smart to keep a log of other people to call in an emergency like your doctor, your insurance provider, neighbors, or utility companies.5

If you have a security system, your monitoring center will call you 

One of the perks of having a home security system is the professional monitoring. When its sensors detect a fire or break-in, the emergency operators will contact you to make sure everything is okay. If you need help, they can send an ambulance, police, or the fire department to your door in a few minutes.

Security systems take the guesswork out of what to do in an emergency and the operators will stay on the line and help you through the stressful situation. If your system sounds an alarm and there is no emergency, you can tell the operators. That way, you won’t have to worry about any false alarms going to 911.

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Final word

The 911 system is a literal lifesaver in situations like a stroke or a house fire. But unless you’re in immediate danger, try to handle the situation yourself or contact non-emergency help. Police, fire departments, and EMTs can be overwhelmed if too many non-emergency calls come in. 

Ultimately, the best way to handle an emergency is to be prepared. Take first aid classes, check your smoke and fire detectors regularly, get to know your neighbors, and make emergency response plans. For people who live with or care for older adults, consider finding a medical alert device for emergencies. If you have all these safeguards in place, it’ll be easier to handle anything that comes your way. 


  1. Melissa Bailey, Washington Post, “Ambulance trips can leave you with surprising—and very expensive—bills,” November 2017. Accessed June 16, 2020. 
  2. Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use.” Accessed June 16, 2020. 
  3. Federal Communications Commission, “Dial 211 for Essential Community Services,” Published December 2019. Accessed July 15, 2020.
  4. Brooks Jarosz, Fox KTVU, “Abuse of 911: Alarming number of callers use emergency service as a customer service line,” September 2018. Accessed June 16, 2020. 
  5. Alex Heinz, Apartment Therapy, “22 Emergency Phone Numbers You Should Know,” January 2020. Accessed June 16, 2020.