When Should I Call the Ambulance?

Dietrich Easter

Should I call an ambulance? This is a very common question, and let me just say at the outset, if you or someone you know is worried about a possible emergency, call 911 now! 

There is a small group of people who abuse the 911 system, but if you're even asking the question, "Should I call an ambulance?" then you're not one of them. If you have any fear or worry about a possible emergency, don't hesitate to call 911 and ask for an ambulance. In general, most people wait too long to call 911. 

In the next sections, let's talk about some of the nuances behind the question: in what emergency situations should I call 911? 

How Serious Does an Emergency Need to Be to Call 911? 

Many people have misconceptions about 911. Some people are worried that they'll get in trouble if they call 911 and then it turns out there was no emergency. Other people think that they should only call 911 when someone sustains a grisly injury. 

I'll do my best to answer from a paramedic's perspective. However, keep in mind that every state, town, and county is a little different in how they operate their 911 system. I can't speak for everyone in this article, but I can tell you what I believe to be the general principles around the country. 

Don't be afraid to call your local emergency medical services, police department, or fire department (on their non-emergency line!) and ask them these questions directly. The first responders in your area will be able to give you the most updated information about their local protocols. 

With that said, let's jump into it! 

Here is what we'll cover: 

  • Will you get in trouble for calling 911 when something isn't an emergency? 
  • What are the types of problems you should call 911 for? 
  • When should you avoid calling 911? 
  • Will I Get a Bill if I Call 911 and Don't Need Them? 
  • What Happens if My Kid Accidently Calls 911? 
  • Make a 911 Emergency Plan

  • Note: when you call an ambulance there is no guarantee they will arrive quickly - especially if you live in a rural area. It's important to have some medical gear on hand and to get trained!


    Will You Get in Trouble for Calling 911 when Something Isn't an Emergency? 

    No, you will not get in trouble if you honestly thought there could have been an emergency and called 911 just in case. I have been called for hundreds of false alarms in my career and no one has ever been reprimanded or punished for calling 911 when they were genuinely afraid or needed medical attention. 

    Let me take this a step further. In my personal experience, I have gone to people who were purposely misusing the 911 system, and even they have not been punished. I know punishment has happened in some areas around the country, but it's very rare. And there's a good reason. 

    Even if you're purposefully prank-calling 911, it's very difficult to be ordered not to call 911. Why? Even the pranksters can have an emergency eventually. 

    This leads me to my message for responsible citizens: many people don't call 911 soon enough. When you hear about "frequent flyers," this is a tiny percentage of the population that calls 911 more than everyone else combined. So never be afraid to call the ambulance if you're worried!

    Times You Should Always Call 911 

    In this section, I’ll list a few times you should always consider calling 911. Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. 

    When you should call 911: 

  • Any time you're worried about your kids: If you're at all worried that your child's life is in danger, call 911 right away. If it turns out to be nothing serious, the paramedics will be glad that your child is okay. If your kid isn't acting themselves and it's making you worried, call the ambulance and don't feel bad about it. 
  • Anytime someone seems to be having a breathing problem: Don't mess around with breathing problems. This can be life-threatening. If someone is having difficulty breathing then it's time to call 911. 
  • Anytime someone seems confused or not themselves: When someone is confused, it means that there could be something wrong with their brain. This is very serious! Don't be afraid to call 911 if you're worried. Also, know that strokes don't always have facial drooping are arm drift, sometimes people just aren't acting themselves. 
  • Chest pain: There are a lot of important things in your chest, namely your heart. If someone is complaining of chest, it's important to call 911 and seek medical help. A heart attack can be fatal so don't be afraid to reach out. 
  • Anytime you're in doubt: Of course, there are a million more times you should call 911 than those listed here. So, anytime you're in doubt, don't be afraid to call 911. The best scenario is that the person turns out to be okay and everyone is happy! 

  • Tip: Getting some medical training will help you determine what's normal and what isn't. Even taking a CPR and first aid course is beneficial. 

    When Should You Avoid Calling 911? 

    When should you not call 911? Uh, don't call them and order a pizza! That being said, if you are genuinely concerned that there might be an emergency or life-threatening situation, then don't be afraid to call 911. 

    The rule is this: if you're concerned someone's life might be at risk, then call 911. Better to turn out to be wrong than to not have called and turn out to be right. Just treat 911 and the emergency response system with respect and you'll be okay. 

    The only people who really get into trouble are those who purposefully prank the 911 system. 

    Will I Get a Bill if I Call 911 and Don't Need Them? 

    Some people are worried about bills when they call 911. This is understandable, as no one wants to deal with extra medical payments. Unfortunately, I can't provide any definitive information in this respect (in the last section, we'll talk about how you can get this information). 

    Some areas don't bill for "refusals" as they're known, where someone calls 911 but ends up not needing them. In other areas, they will bill for refusals. It can just depend on the type of ambulance service and the kind of care that was rendered. 

    What Happens if My Kid Accidently Calls 911? 

    What happens if you accidentally call 911? Will you get in trouble? No, you won't get in trouble for accidentally calling 911. However, there are some things you should keep in mind when this happens. 

    If you or your family member accidentally calls 911, you will probably reflexively hang up the phone. Keep in mind that, if the call went through, then the dispatcher will call you back. If you don't answer when they call you back, then they will assume there is an emergency at your address and send an ambulance/police officer to check it out. 

    So, the moral of the story is this: if you mistakenly call 911, be sure to answer them when they call you back and tell them that it was an accident. The dispatcher will likely say "No worries, stay safe," and you'll be on your way. 

    Obviously, do your best not to accidentally call 911. If your kid has called 911 several times in the past weeks or months, then it's probably time to educate them or limit their access to the emergency number. 

    Make an Emergency Plan for Calling 911

    I suggest that you have a plan when you call 911. There are several key things that you should know about your area. While some of these questions might seem unnecessary, you'll be glad you asked them (or at least considered them). 

    Several aspects of a plan: 

  • Know your area (hospitals): How far are you from the nearest emergency department? Also, know that not all hospitals are "trauma" facilities, so if you're in a major accident, you might need to be transported to a facility that's further away. 
  • Know the ambulances: How far is the ambulance from your home usually? After you call 911, how long will it take them to arrive at your home? If you're out in the country, it could take a lot longer than you think. 
  • Know your family: Stay ahead of any medical conditions within your family. Does anyone need an Epi-pen? Does some have trouble with their blood sugar? Does anyone have any allergies? These are important questions. 

  • Note: if you're curious about your local ambulance service's billing practices, call them up on their non-emergency line. Ask them if you will be billed for an ambulance call even if you are not transported to the hospital. Calling them directly really is the only way to get this information. 

    As a final word, don't be afraid to call 911. If you have more specific questions, look up your ambulance service in the phone book and give them a call on their non-emergency line. Better to get these questions answered when there's no emergency!

    Now, take some time to learn about responding to motor vehicle crashes