In January 2019, 911 dispatcher Antonia Bundy answered a call from a 9 year-old boy. He said “Hi, um, I had a really bad day….,” told her he had a “ton” of homework, and was stumped by a math problem involving fractions. Instead of giving him a grumpy lecture on proper use of 911, she helped him solve the problem. The boy thanked her, and when the news story came out, Ms. Bundy’s police chief lauded her for her kindly service helping the boy with his homework. Of course, the chief recommended against this use of 911 by anyone in the future.
Last month the journal Pediatrics published a study titled “Children’s Ability to Call 911 in an Emergency: A Simulation Study.” Emergency dispatch has come a long way from the days when Timmy would send his dog Lassie for help when trapped in the old abandoned mine. As emergency calls have increased over the past 50 years, the 911 system was developed to enhance efficiency and ease getting assistance in a crisis. The question in this study: can kids Timmy’s age use it properly?
The researchers started by enumerating the necessary steps. First, can children recognize an emergency is happening? Then can they find a cellphone, bypass the password, dial 9-1-1, and answer the dispatcher in a meaningful way? They videoed simulations where an actor pretended to choke and collapse unconscious on the floor. With the video running, the scientists checked off each step the study child got right.
As you might expect, younger children had more difficulty. Kindergartners and first-graders were pretty bad at it; second and third graders a little better. The main problem for littler kids was recognizing that an emergency was happening; even though before the simulation began, the child was told there would be a pretend emergency for them to respond to, and s/he agreeing to participate.
This study raises many questions about how kids might learn emergency response. For example, many schools teach kids how to use 911, but demonstrate with land-lines, which fewer households have now. And how do you use a cellphone if you don’t know the password?
When I was 7 years-old, I had my first emergency. I came home from school to find smoke coming from our windows. I went inside into the kitchen, coughing and calling for mom. I found chicken burning in a pan, shut the stove off, and went back out. Mom arrived soon after, having gone on an errand and forgotten about the chicken. I was a hero for saving the house. Any wonder I’d grow up to be an emergency guy for a living?
Of course, I shouldn’t have gone into a house with smoke pouring out- I could have been overcome by fumes and suffocated. Maybe I should have called 911, but the service wasn’t invented yet. With no cellphones either, I’d need to go a neighbor’s to call the fire department. In the study discussed above, “Children’s Ability to Call 911,” pretend emergencies were used to see if kids could use a cellphone to call 911 and report it successfully to a dispatcher.
In the study, kids were videotaped in simulations where actors pretended to choke and collapse. They had to find the cellphone, bypass the password prompt, dial 9-1-1, and answer the dispatcher in a helpful way. Less than half the 7-and-under kids even recognized an emergency was happening. As for finding the cellphone, the researchers cheated: they had the actor first pretend to be on a call, then put the cellphone down in view of the child. A more realistic test would have had the phone somewhere else. After all, how many times per day do you misplace your phone? Try finding it when someone’s choking to death!
While schools often teach kids how to call for help, it’s usually lecturing and demonstrations with land-line phones. When’s the last time kids used one of those? Thus schools and parents need to better drill kids how to respond to an emergency, particularly if they stay with grandparents, who might actually keel over sometime with only the child to help. They should see demonstrations of what ailing adults look like, be taught how to find the tiny “Emergency Call” button on the password screen, practice dialing 9-1-1, and rehearse what to say to the dispatcher. Just in case it’s their turn to be a hero.