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If there was an emergency, do your kids know what to do? Do they know how to use a smartphone? Can they give their home address? Unlock the door? Keep themselves safe? These are important questions to ponder no matter your children’s ages. And, they’re especially important to think about if you’re living with an abusive partner.
In more than a third of all domestic violence cases, children were at home when abuse occurred. Of those children, 60 percent witnessed the violence happening. If you’re unable to get to the phone, your child could be the difference between life and death.
Experts say most kids over the age of 3 can master dialing 911—though kids even younger have shown they can do it as well, like the 2-year-old girl in South Carolina who dialed 911 one morning reporting that she couldn’t get her pants on. So, it’s never really too young to start reviewing the process with your child.
Below, 5 steps to get you started.
1. Define an Emergency. Start by explaining to your children what constitutes an emergency and what doesn’t. (See pants example above.) Give them several scenarios and ask if they would need to call 911 in those situations (i.e., you fall off your bike and scrape your knee vs. you hear mommy scream for help). Make it into a game, if it helps.
If your child is older, you can add the warning that calling 911 as a joke can get them in trouble. In many places, it can result in a citation or fine. Telling younger kids about this, however, may scare them out of calling 911 (and let’s face it, the police department is more apt to forgive a mistaken call from a confused 3-year-old than from a joking 14-year-old).
2. Walk Them Through Dialing 911 on Each Phone in Your House. One phone’s keypad could vary from another. Let a child pick up the phone and practice dialing 911 (without actually punching the keys, or disconnect the phone first).
This also includes any cell phones in the house, which means they either need to learn how to enter your security code to unlock it, or, depending on the phone, you may be able to program their fingerprint in as a way to unlock it. Once unlocked, many cell phones require you enter the number and then press “Send” in order to complete the call.
Another thing to ponder regarding cell phones—does your child know where the phone is? Consider keeping it in the same place all the time.
Do you currently live in a hotel or somewhere where there is a communal phone? Cover the steps that might be necessary to use the phone there. In many hotels, you are required to dial 9 first to get an outside line, and then 911. In one tragic story out of Texas, a little girl tried desperately to call 911 from a hotel when her father began abusing her mother, but couldn’t because she didn’t know she needed to dial a 9 first.
3. Reinforce Using a Landline Whenever Possible. Calling 911 from a landline means the call can be traceable by emergency personnel. Despite what movies have led us to believe, tracing cell phone calls isn’t as easy it looks.
The FCC estimates that about 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones. In fact, it’s the primary reason many people have cell phones—in case of an emergency. But often, operators can only trace a cell phone call as close as the nearest cell phone tower, giving them an approximate area of the call. Without a specific address, emergency services can be delayed. Teaching children to memorize their address, or keeping it posted somewhere easily accessible in the home (if they can read) could solve this problem, but variables come in to play here as well. What if the emergency happens somewhere other than at home? What if the child panics and forgets their address (this happens to adults who are panicked as well)?
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If your state has a Smart911 program in operation, go online and sign up for a free profile. This will connect your cell phone with your address and other important details that only 911 operators can gain access to in case of an emergency.
Also of note: Wireless carriers are required to complete 911 calls even when the phone is not activated. Any phone that turns on and can receive a signal is capable of making a 911 call.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice. Role-play with your child. You’re the 911 operator and they’re making the call. Give your child a few details about the emergency—mommy is asleep and won’t wake up, someone strange is at the door and won’t go away or you hear yelling from outside your room. Tell your child they need to speak slowly and clearly and try to stay calm, even if they’re scared. They also need to listen to the 911 operator’s instructions and do exactly as they’re told.
Make sure your child knows his or her first and last name, and their address. Reassure your child that if he or she is somewhere other than home and doesn’t know the address, they can still describe where they are. Have them start describing what they see: a restaurant across the street, a construction site next door, or a license plate on a car (if they can identify the numbers and letters).
For younger children who may have trouble remembering the three digits to call for help, child care expert Robin McClure suggests using the melody to Frere Jacques:
There's a fire
There's a fire
Call the fire department
Call the fire department
Some experts say that using a fire in the song may be a less scary example for kids than say, a violent intruder, even though you can reassure that 911 operators handle all emergencies.
5. Safety Plan With Your Kids. If you’re considering leaving an abusive partner, you’ve probably thought about a safety plan. And maybe you thought it better to keep your kids in the dark about the details. After all, it could scare them. Experts argue that kids should be a part of a safety plan. Look for specifics on how to include your kids, depending on their age, in “Safety Planning With Your Kids.”
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