The fall we moved to the farm, our daughter was still in elementary school. We moved to a “neighborhood” where the closest neighbor was over a mile away. Her dad and I had jobs outside the home, so she would ride the school bus home and then be alone for an hour or so. All was going well until winter when a blizzard came up unexpectedly and she was stranded at home alone. (This was before cell phones.) We had to come up with a plan quickly, as we could not get home. Pre-planning for this scenario would have avoided a great deal of anxiety.

Many children don’t have adult supervision 100% of the time. Parents and caregivers have jobs, errands, and other responsibilities that require them to leave their kids home alone some of the time. Emergencies and no-notice disasters do happen. They can be scary for anybody, especially children. Talking to kids about emergencies, involving them in preparedness activities, and teaching them what to do during an emergency can give them a sense of control if a real emergency happens.

There are many events that all families should prepare for like weather events, electrical outages and injuries. But one of the most important lessons to teach a child—regardless of whether they spend time home alone—is to call 911. Explain to them that the purpose of calling 911 is when a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic is needed right away.

Tell them the dispatcher will ask several questions like, “What is your emergency? What is your address? What phone number can they call you back on?” They may also ask more detailed questions about who needs help and if it’s a medical emergency. They may give directions on what the child can do to help.

Give kids examples of when to call 911: If someone is threatening or hurting someone else; if there is a fire; or someone is hurt, bleeding, or lying on the ground and not moving.

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Reassure kids that calling 911 is easy to do. Emphasize the importance of answering the dispatcher’s questions honestly, following directions, and staying on the phone until told to hang up. If your child accidentally calls 911 and there is not an emergency, tell them it is important to stay on the line and explain they called by mistake. Dispatchers are trained to take these kinds of calls.

Let children know that if an emergency happens, they should look for an adult helper. This could be a neighbor, teacher, or adult relative. And this is where my “child-at-home-alone” story picks up again. We did call a neighbor who had to drive his tractor to our farm to bring our daughter to his home for “safe keeping.” All turned out well but it is not something I ever wish on another family. Federal agencies offer more advice on preparing children for an emergency.

Information for this article is taken from CDC “Public Health Matters.”

Marcia Schroeder is a registered nurse with Horizon Public Health, which serves five counties, including Douglas County. Contact Schroeder at marcias@horizonph.org.