It might seem like reporting an emergency is simple, just call 911, right? And while that is correct as far as it goes you would be amazed at how often things go wrong in that process. This short guide will help you to report emergencies more effectively.

Step 1: Be Sure You Are Safe

Never become an additional victim. Get to safety before reporting the problem.

Step 2: Stay Safe

Never go near or drive over downed power lines, even if they look dead. Keep well back from fires and hazardous chemical spills. Stay well off the road as emergency vehicles come to the scene - don't get hit! Don't approach a helicopter of any kind without an escort from the crew; stay well back at all times. These are all reminders not to become another victim.

Step 3: Call 911

This is the preferred way to get the right people coming to you. 911 dispatchers can send fire engines, ambulances, or sheriff's deputies. They can order up PG&E to shut down power lines, contact environmental people in the event of a serious toxin leak, and so on. Your first and best bet is to call 911. When they answer, be prepared:

  • Describe clearly what you are calling about. Give them the best location you have for the problem - address, cross street, milepost marker, landmark, direction and distance, or whatever is needed. Consider this information carefully as - very often - the first reported location is incorrect, particularly for traffic accidents. "17 north of the Summit" is often actually on the south side, and vice versa, for example. And direction of travel is often given incorrectly as well. And it turns out that cell phone callers regularly give the dispatcher their current location, rather than where the problem really is, so avoid that mistake. In short, take a moment to be sure you have the right data and are expressing it clearly to the dispatcher.
  • You may have to give your name, and phone number, particularly if you're calling from a cellular phone. In some cases the dispatchers may call you back to get clarification about the location or nature of the problem you reported.
  • If you are reporting a fire, dispatchers will also want to know about:
    • Any injuries. People may be injured as a result of the start of the fire, or while attempting to put it out themselves. If those injuries aren't reported, medical aid and an ambulance won't be started until firefighters arrive and discover the situation.

    • What is burning: brush, house, car, etc.

    • If the fire is spreading into the brush, another home, etc.

    • If it is your home on fire, get everyone out of the house to a safe location and keep them accounted for. Don’t re-enter the home!

Additional Information

If you can do so safely, it may also help to stay at the scene to wave down arriving emergency vehicles, particularly if the event is hard to see from the road. Once you've done that, though, be prepared to be ignored as the emergency workers get going on whatever the situation is. It's nothing personal and they aren't being rude, they're just busy and focused on the problem at hand. Assuming you were not involved in or affected by the incident you can probably leave as soon emergency vehicles have arrived and it is safe to do so. (But never leave the scene of an accident you were involved in until law enforcement says it's OK to go.)

Where your 911 call actually goes depends on what kind of phone you are using and where you are when you call. There is an entire page here devoted to who answers your 911 call.

Regardless of where a 911 call goes, the dispatch center will be able to get emergency equipment of the right kind coming your way. In some cases they may transfer your call to a different dispatch center if needed, or they may just take your information and forward that to the right place.

A note about cell phones: many studies show that using a cellular phone for any purpose while driving a vehicle is dangerous, even with a hands free headset. Please do not do this. If you see an accident or a hazard, find the next safe place to pull over and only then call 911. If you have an accident while driving and using your phone you're just creating more victims, so please use your cell phone responsibly. And remember that making calls without a hands free headset while driving is illegal in California, as is texting of any kind - even just reading incoming messages.

At times people call 911 for the wrong reasons. Never call 911 to find out what is going on, if emergency personnel are already on scene, or for what amount to neighbor disputes, rather than actual emergencies. You may not appreciate a neighbor who is burning and creating smoke, but if it is legal there is nothing the fire department can do, and the firefighters dispatched to such a call are going to be slower to respond to other incidents that might come up while they are busy. Only call 911 for real emergencies, or when you have a significant concern that an emergency exists.

Finally, on occasion, the 911 dispatchers can be slow to answer. It depends on the time of day, number of incidents going on, and so on. Some services provide alternate numbers to call in the event of an emergency, or non-emergency numbers to call for less urgent matters. You can find some of those on the Emergency Numbers and Links page.


Back to Emergency Information.