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When you or a loved one suffers a life-threatening medical emergency or injury, you know to call 911. But often it's just as important to know what to do before the call and afterward -- while you're waiting for help to arrive. While you can never predict when you might need emergency care, this guide can help you be prepared in the event that you do.

Before There's an Emergency

When accidents happen you often need to act quickly, but in the terror of the moment it's easy to become confused and disoriented. That is why experts recommend that you prepare for an emergency before it happens by gathering all the information you'll need to provide the 911 operator and the emergency team. This 911 information is also essential to have on hand for a caregiver, relative, or friend, if you are not at home, or in case you are incapacitated.  It should include:

  • Your street address, apartment number, and closest cross street.
  • A call-back number, in case emergency personnel have additional questions
  • Chronic medical conditions, if any
  • Recent medical events, if any

Post 911 information on your refrigerator or near the telephone, along with emergency numbers and contact information for physicians, family members, and close neighbors. Make sure that everyone in your family knows about the 911 checklist, and be sure to point it out to your babysitter, housekeeper, relatives, and house guests.

Making the 911 Call: What to Expect

Someone is sick or has suffered an injury. You've placed a call to 911. Now what? "Let the operator drive the call," advises emergency physician Darria Long, MD, a spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. She says callers should not interrupt the 911 dispatcher and should follow all instructions and be ready to answer questions, the most important of which is your location. You should also be prepared to answer questions about the person's condition. These questions may include:

  • Is the person awake?
  • Is the person breathing?
  • Is there an injury?
  • Is the person in a dangerous spot or position where further injury could occur?
  • Has the person experienced a recent major medical event?
  • Does the person have a chronic medical condition?

What to Do While You Wait

Do not hang up until the 911 operator tells you to do so. While waiting for emergency care, you should do the following:

  • If the person is not breathing, begin CPR, but only if you have been trained to do so.
  • If there is a wound, begin first aid. (See instructions below.)
  • Stay calm and reassure the person that help is on the way.
  • Make the person as comfortable as possible.
  • Gather the person's medications to give to the emergency team.
  • Move furniture to allow easy access to the person.
  • Recall the facts: How long has the person been sick? How long has he been unconscious? When and how did the accident happen?
  • Have someone at the door to let in the emergency personnel and guide them to the person.