Should you call 911? Tips when calling emergency help

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A timely call to 911 can be the difference between life and death. But do all emergency situations warrant a 911 call?

When to call 911:

Call 911 only when there is imminent danger. This means life-threatening situations or events that are about to happen. The Winnipeg Police defines these as:

  • Any crime in progress (break and enter, robbery, etc.)
  • Any situation where people or property are at risk (fire, children on ice, etc.)
  • Any medical emergency (heart attack, accidental poisoning)

When you dial 911 in Winnipeg, your call will be answered at the Winnipeg Police Service’s Communications Centre. It will be directed to the proper agency depending on the type pf emergency. The call is answered at the Provincial Public Safety Answering Point in Brandon if you are outside of Winnipeg.

What if you’re not sure?

There are situations that are dangerous and potentially life-threatening but do not fall into the three categories above. When you’re not sure:

Health emergencies:
Call Health Links Info Sante at 204-788-8200 in Winnipeg or toll-free 1-888-315-9257.

  • A registered nurse can help you decide if it’s an emergency.
  • Ask for a translator if you can’t speak English.
  • This can prevent you from incurring an unnecessary expense as an ambulance costs around $250 (2020).

Crime and suspicious circumstances:
Call the Police Non-emergency number 204-986-6222. This includes situations where a crime has occurred and the offender has left. When reporting, it would help to provide as much information as you can to help the police. Helpful details would be: the suspect’s characteristics (sex, age, race, height, weight, build, complexion, colour of hair/eyes, description of clothing, marks, scars and tattoos); and vehicle (license plate number & province, make, model, the direction the vehicle was going when it was last seen).

Do not endanger yourself just to gather such information. Always think of your safety first.

What if you accidentally call 911?

Don’t hang up. Tell the dispatcher that you’ve made a mistake and accidentally called them. Hanging up will waste their time. They must return every call to make sure that the caller did not drop it due to dire circumstances (for example, the caller becoming unconscious).

To prevent accidental calls:

  1. Don’t put 911 on your mobile phone’s speed dial or auto-dial. This increases the chances that you will dial it by mistake. Check your device settings or call your service provider for assistance.
  2. Don’t pre-program 911 into your home or business phone. The numbers are short enough to remember.
  3. Lock you phone keypad.
  4. Don’t let your kids play with your phone.

Remember: Every mistake or non-emergency call ties up the line and may prevent operators from responding to a more urgent or life-threatening emergency.

Important things to remember when calling 911:

  1. Stay calm. Do not panic.
  2. Know your location. Provide the exact address or location where you need them to go. While 911 can trace the location of your call when using a landline, they will still ask for a location because you may need help somewhere else. Also, they will see no location information when you use a mobile phone or when you use a 10-digit number. Say your address or location clearly so that they can send help as soon as possible.
  3. Answer the dispatcher’s questions. The dispatcher will ask a series of questions. This is done so that the right resources will be sent to you, the responders will be prepared for the situation and instructions for care will be provided. Don’t hang up until the dispatcher says so.
  4. Follow instructions. Listen carefully and be prepared to follow what the dispatcher wants you to do. They are trained for various emergencies and would know the best actions to mitigate the situation. In a medical emergency for example, they may walk you through performing CPR or tell you how to stop bleeding.

If you cannot speak: Ask for an interpreter if you can’t explain the situation because you have limited English. If you can’t speak because of injury or danger, leave the phone off the hook so that the Communications Operator will hear what is going on. They will send help.
Article updated July 9, 2020.

Sources: Calling for emergency services in Manitoba, Medical Transportation Coordination Centre; Emergencies and calling 911,; Reporting Emergencies, Winnipeg Police Service; and When you should and shouldn’t call 911, Allie Johnson, Safe Bee. Retrieved December 13, 2018.

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Community Resources

Read What to do in a health emergency to be ready for any health scares.

Fire safety tips for newcomers will tell you of what to do to prevent fires and keep your family safe.

We interviewed a Patrol Sargeant of the Winnipeg Police for tips on preventing assaults and thefts, read it here: What do you do when a burglar breaks into your home?

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