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911 Calls and Kids: Prepare for a Child Medical Emergency

Summer vacation is prime season for children to have accidents. Here's advice to help parents know what to do and expect if a crisis happens.

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"However, today, many people don't have a land line and must use their cell phones," Williams says. "That is why one of the first questions our dispatchers will ask is for a call-back number to use, should the call be disconnected. Unlike with a land line, a caller's number and address do not come through. The technology isn't there yet."

In the event that the emergency takes place away from home or in an unfamiliar location, Williams encourages parents to flag someone down for help. If unsure of their location, like if there is a car accident, dispatchers will ask questions until they can pinpoint a location.

"The dispatcher will ask you what exit you just passed or what exit you're coming upon," she says. "They will ask you what you see around you. But ultimately, when accidents happen on the road, dispatch typically gets more than one or two calls from passersby who can help provide location information."

Williams notes that in most cases, the first person with whom a caller speaks when they dial 911 will be a police dispatcher who will try to ascertain the nature of the emergency.

"Parents should expect the dispatcher to ask lots of questions," she says. "Parents need to answer them as best they can and know that the ambulance has already been dispatched. These questions are not holding up the dispatcher from sending out an ambulance. That happens immediately. The answers you provide to questions are being relayed to the paramedics as they're driving.

"We're also using that information to determine if we need the ambulance to proceed with lights and sirens," Williams adds. "When we go lights and sirens, it's very dangerous for everyone involved. We try to use those only when the situation is critical."

Emergency dispatchers will use a calming voice and encourage panic-stricken parents to take deep breaths and to focus, so they can help the child. To keep the child calm, parents should attempt to keep their own panic in check and use a soothing voice to reassure the child age appropriately, Williams notes. "Kids will pick up on the parent's panic," she says.

First responders

Despite temptation to call 911 and quickly get off the phone to tend to an injured child, parents need to stay on the line until the dispatcher says to hang up, Williams notes.

"The dispatcher wants you to share all of the information you possibly can before the ambulance arrives," she explains.

If possible, parents should send someone out to greet the ambulance.

"Doing so is especially helpful at night or when the weather makes visibility poor," Williams says. "If the emergency is happening outside, say in the backyard, this person can lead the paramedics to the scene if there is no obvious entrance."

Williams also notes that in medical emergencies, the local fire department is typically dispatched along with paramedics. Firefighters may respond first and are trained and equipped to begin administering treatment until paramedics arrive.

"Firefighters will have a defibrillator with them. They can start oxygen, and they can administer CPR," Williams explains. "They can do all the things the medics will do when they get there."

Once paramedics do arrive on the scene, they will begin or continue treatment – and in many cases, confer with the parents on what hospital to take the child to.

"Typically, parents can decide which hospital they'd like the child to go to – unless the situation dictates a particular hospital," Williams says. "For example, if there is a severe burn, the University of Michigan has a trauma burn center at Mott Children's Hospital. It depends on the severity of the situation."

In most cases, at least one parent is welcome to ride in the ambulance with the child. "If the situation is critical, two medics may be working in the back, and a firefighter may be driving the ambulance," notes Williams. "In that case, a parent may need to ride up front, as there is not a ton of space in the back." Another exception to this may occur if a parent is hysterical and is impeding paramedics' work.

"In that case, a neighbor or family member may drive the parent to the hospital to meet the ambulance," Williams says. "If parents can't or shouldn't ride in the ambulance and someone is not there to drive him or her, firefighters or police can drive the parent."

Likewise, police officers and firefighters responding on the scene will lock up the family's home, check the scene to make sure nothing was left behind and make sure that any other children in the family are left in the care of another family member or neighbor.

"The parent is often too distraught to think about those things," Williams says.

At the hospital

Unlike days past, when parents were confined to the waiting room with little knowledge of what was happening with their child, nowadays, parents are welcome – and encouraged – to remain with their child while treatment is underway.

"At Botsford, we always allow parents in the room where we're giving treatment – even in critical situations," says Vieder. "We want parents there to provide any information we may need. We want parents there to be part of the recovery. We want parents there to be aware of how critical the situation may be. And we want parents there to know we tried everything we could in the event of a death.

"If a child dies, parents sometimes feel guilt that they weren't there, that if only they'd been with their child they could have made sure something else was done," he says. "We don't want parents to have those regrets." An exception to parental presence in a treatment area: if a particular procedure requires a sterile environment.

"But ultimately, if the child is scared, a parent will be a source of comfort," Vieder says. "If the situation is not super critical, we may request just one parent in the room if space is limited or if one or the other parent is queasy. We don't want another patient on our hands. But otherwise, we welcome parents there to hold their child's hand and to talk to him or her."

At the hospital, parents should expect to be asked about any medications their child is on and any allergies the child may have. Medical providers will also ask for details about what happened, which parents may be hesitant or nervous to share.

"The best parents with the best intentions make mistakes," Vieder says. "Things happen beyond our control. We encourage parents to share any information about the accident that they can. It's important that they do so, as that piece of information may be critical."

Be prepared

Both Williams and Vieder stress that the best thing a parent can do to prepare for emergency situations is to plan ahead and get educated.

To help 911 dispatchers get the info they need and to the scene as quickly as possible, Williams advises parents of young children to have a land phone line and to post that phone number for it, as well as the house address, on or next to the phone. Similarly, she encourages families to make sure their house number is visible from the street and in the dark.

"Light your address if possible," she advises.

Williams also encourages families to post the number for poison control on their refrigerator and to make sure kids know how to dial 911 – and that they can recite their address and phone number.

"Have your child practice dialing 911 on a play phone or a cell phone that's turned off," she adds.

Vieder suggests parents write down the names of any medications their child is taking and any allergies the child has on a card to keep in their wallet. This will ensure they have that information and can quickly relay it to medical professionals during an emergency.

Both say that if parents do just one thing to better prepare for an emergency, it should be taking a CPR and first-aid course.

"You may never need to use what you learn," Vieder says. "But even if you remember only a portion of what you learned in a first-aid course, you're better off. You'll have at least a fighting chance to help the child in need."

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