By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly
Teaching your child how and when to call 9-1-1 can be one of the easiest and most important lessons that she will ever learn. Because time is important during an emergency, your child should be prepared beforehand so that she will know what to do.

Children need to know exactly what constitutes an emergency. Ask your child what he thinks an emergency is and what he should do in an emergency situation. Questions like, "What would you do if someone tried to break into the house?" or "What would you do if there was a fire?" will give you a chance to talk about the child's role in these situations. If you have special circumstances in your house, such as a person with a heart condition, epilepsy or diabetes, or if an elderly grandparent lives with you, make sure that your child is prepared to spot specific emergencies that require a call to 9-1-1.

It's also a good idea to practice emergency procedures by role-playing, or acting out different emergency situations with an emphasis on the steps a child will need to take. Talking about emergency workers, such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics will also help children get an idea of what kinds of emergencies can happen and who can help them in those situations.

Teach your child the difference between an emergency and a non-emergency. For example, if there is a fire, an intruder in the house or an unconscious family member, 9-1-1 should be called, but if the child skins a knee or wants to report a stolen bicycle, 9-1-1 is not necessary.

Make sure your child knows that calling 9-1-1 as a joke is unacceptable and often considered a crime. Make it clear that an unnecessary call to 9-1-1 can delay a response to someone who needs help and that, in most areas, a call to 9-1-1 can be traced. This means that emergency workers may be sent to the location from which the prank call came, while there is someone across town in a real emergency situation.

Your child should know your street address and phone number to give to the 9-1-1 operator. However, make sure children know that a 9-1-1 operator is the only stranger they should give this information. Tell your child that the operator will probably ask where she lives, what type of emergency is happening, who needs help and whether the person in need is awake and breathing.

Let children know that it is okay to be afraid in an emergency, but that they need to stay calm and speak slowly and clearly to the 9-1-1 operator. If your child is old enough to understand, explain that the operator may offer first-aid instructions before emergency workers arrive. Also, keep a first-aid kit on hand and make sure that your child knows where it is and how to use it when he is old enough.

Keep a list of emergency phone numbers near the phone, as well as a number where you or other family members can be reached. On this emergency list, also write important medical information about each family member, such as medical conditions, allergies to medications and insurance information. If you have a young child who understands the list, instruct her to give it to the emergency workers when they arrive.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children's special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB. This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email