Can I Call 911 for Someone Having an Emergency in Another State?

How to Get Help Right Away for Someone Far Away

911 dispatcher
Dispatchers can work with you to find help, even across the country. Shelly Harrison Photography / Getty Images

If you're in California and you're chatting with your aunt in Colorado when she suddenly complains of chest pain, could you call 911 for her?

Yes, but as with almost anything having to do with 911 emergency response, it's a bit more complicated than it sounds.

Public Service Answering Points (911 Centers)

Emergency dispatch centers (called public service answering points, or PSAPs) are responsible for answering 911 calls and tending to the needs of those in their designated areas. When you call 911, your call is routed through a PSAP that handles calls in your geographical area. If you are calling for yourself or for someone you are with, the person who answers your call for help is likely sitting in the same room as the person (or is the same person) who will be speaking directly to the paramedics, firefighters, or law enforcement officers who will respond.

Calling 911 for Someone Far Away

When you call 911 for someone who is not physically with you, the same local PSAP is going to answer the phone. These centers are not guaranteed to find a center for you in another part of the country, but that doesn't mean they won't try. Unfortunately, it's probably not going to be quick, or at least not feel like it's happening very quickly. The trick when you call for someone far away is to be patient, calm, and as clear as you can possibly be.

Most centers use the very same tools you do to find phone numbers in other states—the Internet or telephone companies. What they have that you don't is a working relationship with telephone companies, and that usually results in better cooperation. Many municipal PSAPs—especially those in tourist areas—have standard operating procedures for handling calls just like this. That being said, there's no way for any center in the United States, or in the world, to have contact information for every other center.

How to Get the Help Where You Need It

If you do call 911 for a person you are not with, there are several things you can do to help the 911 dispatcher help you. Here are the most important things you can use to help speed up the process:

  • Don't Hang Up
    If you have Aunt Sally on the phone with you and there's another phone available, don't hang up with Aunt Sally. Call from the other phone so you can ask Aunt Sally questions if needed.
  • Know Where the Emergency is Happening
    If possible, know the address, including city and state, where the person having the emergency is located. No one can help you if they don't know where to go. Knowing the phone number is a good back-up. If the person is at home and she is listed in the telephone book, the PSAP will be able to trace the number to an address. If the person is not listed, they still may be able to trace it using a database called the Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Identifier (ANI/ALI). 
  • Call 911 From a Cell Phone
    PSAPs that answer cell phone calls have more experience tracking down odd locations. It's not unheard of for a cell phone to skip over several cell towers to one in a completely different state. Using a cell phone to call 911 is especially good if you're still on the phone with your aunt. Stay on the line with her. She might not be able to answer the phone if the line is disconnected, but some PSAPs have the ability to break into an existing conversation and begin speaking to the people on the line.
  • Plan Ahead
    If you are concerned about a loved one in another state, call the police department in the town where he or she lives and get the 10-digit number (7 digits + area code) to call in case of emergencies. If an emergency arises, call the 10-digit number instead of 911. It will connect you directly to the correct PSAP, and you can give the call-taker the address so she can send help.

A PSAP may be reluctant to help you if their system is busy when you call. Rightly so, a busy 911 dispatcher is going to take care of the folks in his or her area before trying to help someone hundreds of miles away. Keep calm and be patient. They will try harder to help you if you try hard to stay calm.

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