Teaching Kids How and When to Call 911 | A Parent's Guide

Teaching Kids How and When to Call 911 | A Parent's Guide


There’s nothing worse than the thought of your child caught in the middle of an emergency. For any parent or guardian it’s the stuff of true nightmares. 


Whether it’s danger from falls and accidents on the playground, or nightmares like kidnapping or school shootings, there’s no doubt the world can feel like a scary place for kids.


We know that children are the most vulnerable members of society, but somehow they’re also the least connected and able to call for help.


A new report released by COSMO this fall examines the extent of this disconnect in depth. Based on recent third-party studies and parent surveys, as well as the latest demographic data, COSMO’s report estimates that 26.6 million children in the US lack the access or training necessary to successfully notify 911 in an emergency.

Kids Disconnected Report


Why are so many kids left disconnected? In this guide we’ll explore the answer, look at common misconceptions around kids calling 911, and explore 4 steps to making sure your children are equipped to call for help.

Why Do Kids Need 911?


Let’s start at the beginning with this important question: Do kids really need to be able to call 911? When it comes to emergencies, kids are often dismissed as either unhelpful or not needed. But as we’ll see, some common misconceptions have created the myths that tend to leave kids unprotected and underprepared. What are those myths?

Myth #1: Kids Don’t Need 911


Tragically, this just isn’t true. In our world, we know all too well that kids are both the most likely to experience accidents, abuse, and violence, and they’re also the least able to call for help.


The data on this are clear: children face more threats to safety than ever as cases of child maltreatment and abuse have increased, alongside crime, school shootings, and more. Here are just a few chilling statistics:


Child emergencies

Myth #2: Kids Can’t Help


When you think of kids calling 911, a first thought might be prank calls. Of course prank calls happen - and they can certainly be a serious issue! But by and large, it’s a dangerous misconception. 


911 dispatchers are quick to share that kids can be critically helpful when it comes to identifying an emergency and providing lifesaving information. As one dispatcher from Wichita, Kansas put it: 


“I have talked to a number of children,” said Maj. Laura Meyers, who oversees quality assurance and training for the emergency communications center. “For the most part, they’re very cooperative. They will give you the information you ask for. It seems like they’re usually very willing and very helpful and very attentive.”

Just Google “kids calling 911” and you’ll find countless stories of children who were able to make a lifesaving call in serious situations like:

  • > Finding an unconscious parent
  • > A grandparent having a stroke or heart attack
  • > Instances of abuse or neglect


Kids calling 911


The simple reality is that more kids with better training on how to successfully call 911 in a true emergency makes for a safer world for everyone.

Myth #3: All Phones Are Bad For Kids


Remember the days when parents taught kids at an early age how to answer the home phone? (think “SMITH RESIDENCE THIS IS COLIN SPEAKING”). Phones have changed a lot from the curly-corded devices most adults today grew up with. But one thing hasn’t: phones alone are critically important tools to keep kids connected and protected.


Today though, we hold phones that are supercomputers in our palms with access to an endless internet and addictive apps like TikTok. That leaves many parents worried that kids just aren’t ready for phones - and for good reason! There’s more concerning evidence than ever about the impacts of screen time and social media on kids’ long term physical, emotional, and mental health. Finding ways to prioritize digital wellness and balance has never been more important.


With all that said, we also have to remember that not all phones are created equal. Handing a child access to calling 911 doesn’t have to mean handing them access to social media. 

What is the best emergency phone for children?


So want to make sure your child has the right training and access to call for help. But what are the best kid-safe options? Think of a staircase for a moment - kids today often make a big step up fast - from little or no connection to owning their own fully equipped adult smartphone. This is a big (and fast) leap for kids up the connection staircase, usually for the sake of safety and parental peace of mind.


Thankfully, there are some great internet-free smartphone alternatives that help kids and families take it one step at a time. If you’re interested in an emergency phone for a child, consider these simpler, safer options for youngsters:


  • -- Keep a landline phone: It may not be popular but guess what - there’s no apps, no internet, and kids can learn the old fashioned way.


  • -- Train them how to access 911 on your phone: One recent study found that many school 911 safety programs actually used pictures of landline phones instead of cell phones for training. It may not exactly be a “smartphone alternative” but it’s important to make sure your kids know how to activate 911 on an adult’s phone.


  • -- Give them a “dumb phone”: Many parents will use an old cell phone or flip phone as a great starting point to give kids a means of communication but without all the extra stuff. These won’t come with GPS capabilities, but if that’s ok, it’s still a great starting point.


  • -- Get them a phone watch for kids (with 911 capabilities): Another great option is a smartwatch made for kids that is equipped with 911 calling. Like a flip phone, this can be used as a “training wheels” device for kids - plus it comes with the extra benefit of having GPS tracking and other great safety features.

[If you're interested in learning more about safe first phones and when kids are ready for them, check out COSMO's helpful First Phone Guide for Parents]


When should kids learn to call 911?


Knowing the right age for emergency preparedness comes down to each individual child. Some children may struggle more with things like anxiety or fear, (or maybe just love pressing buttons too much), which could be a reason to wait just a bit.


But broadly speaking, earlier is better. Starting training at age 4 or 5 is a good general benchmark for teaching kids to call 911 which is when a child likely has the necessary understanding and skills for the right steps.


One recent study observed 50 elementary school children in a simulated emergency and their ability to:

  1. Identify the emergency 
  2. Place a 911 call
  3. Successfully communicate the necessary information


The study found that the vast majority of children in this age range could not complete steps 2 and 3.


“Although mobile devices are ubiquitous in children’s lives today, in this study we found that most primary school–aged children, and particularly those in kindergarten and first grade, are not prepared to respond to an emergency using a smartphone to dial 9-1-1 and communicate the emergency to a dispatcher…we underscore the need to develop emergency skills education aimed at enhancing young children’s emergency preparedness in the digital era.” [JF Huber, et a;, Pediatrics, 2021]

How to train kids to call 911


Here’s the good news: making a plan doesn’t have to be hard! This four step TEPP approach is one any parent can use. It’s a simple framework to make sure you children are prepared and ready.


1) Train: Help kids be able to recognize and respond to an emergency


Safety starts with understanding. It’s critical to help kids both understand how to identify a 911 emergency, as well as learn the steps they should take if one occurs. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Sit kids down and talk to them about what an emergency is and what they should do.
  • Make sure kids understand how to access emergency calling services on your phone.
  • Practice role playing 911 calling and teaching children how to interact with a 911 dispatcher.
  • Consider posting a sheet in an accessible place with all your family’s critical information (address, names, phone numbers, etc.), as well as the name and number of a non-911 emergency contact kids can call.

Helpful Resources:

  • > 911 For Kids provides an excellent quick overview of training points for any parents or educators
  • > DialSafe Pro: This app uses simple games to help kids safely learn how to dial 911, how to memorize their address, and other helpful information.

2) Equip: Equip kids with the right tools for staying safe and connected


With the options available, consider your kid(s) and the tools that will work best for them. Whether it’s a landline, a smartphone, or something in between.


Helpful Resources:

  • > COSMO’s award-winning JrTrack 2 GPS smartwatch is one of the only smart watches for kids equipped with 911 calling (which can be turned on/off be parents in the settings)


COSMO kids smart watch


3) Plan: Prepare and practice responses to emergencies as a family


Once kids begin to build understanding and capabilities for taking action, the next thing to do is build a plan. What will your family do in the case of an emergency? Many families have fire escape plans - think about this and other scenarios that kids should be aware of and what steps they should take. 


An important consideration as kids grow older is to talk about emergency preparedness not just at home but also at school. 


Helpful Resources:

  • > Check out Ready.Gov for all sorts of helpful tips, plans, guides, and information for emergency preparedness.



4) Practice: Keep emergency response awareness fresh


As with anything, practice makes perfect. Be sure to regularly revisit the topic of emergency preparedness with kids, check their memory on important information, and provide helpful recommendations.


Helpful Resources:

> We love WikiHow’s illustrated guide to practicing 911 calling and emergency preparedness for kids.



Putting It All Together


It's truly tragic how many terrible events could be reduced or avoided if more children just had the correct training and and access to respond effectively in an emergency.

So what can your family do?

-- Assess where your kids are and their readiness for 911 training (age 4 or 5 is a good benchmark)

-- Train your kids on how to identify an emergency and place a 911 call

-- Equip your kids with a kid-safe option for calling 911 - it could be as simple as a land line, a "dumb phone" or flip phone, or a 911-equipped smartwatch for kids.

-- Make a plan with your family for emergency response - both for something at home as well as helping kids understand what to do at school

-- Practice to make sure kids understand and retain the important steps and information.