Urgent matters: 911

What parents need to know in an emergency


Phyllis Nutkis

Ten tips It's every parent's nightmare: Your child suffers a severe injury or a sudden and serious illness. During these moments, your focus, of course, will be on the child. There's no time to ask questions about who will respond to your emergency call, what hospital your child will go to or who will pay for the ambulance. The following 10 questions, with answers provided by several local fire departments and private ambulance companies, are designed to take some of the uncertainty out of an experience that can be stressful and frightening for parents as well as kids.

1 What's the difference between calling 911 and calling a private ambulance company?

Calling 911 is the best choice in an emergency. Private ambulance companies are used more often for non-emergency situations, such as transporting a medically stable patient from one hospital to another. While a private ambulance company may have equally qualified personnel, they may be based farther away and take longer to reach you.

2 Who will respond when I call 911?

Calling 911 will connect you with the closest emergency response team, usually from your local police or fire department. In most areas, specially trained emergency dispatch workers determine what kind of equipment and staff to send, depending on the nature of the emergency. A basic life-support ambulance has standard first aid, cardiac and breathing equipment, while an advanced life-support ambulance is more like a mobile emergency room, with cardiac monitoring equipment and a variety of medications. Often, a fire engine may come in addition to the ambulance, since many firefighters are also trained emergency medical technicians or paramedics and can assist the ambulance crew.

3 What training does the ambulance staff have?

Emergency response team members-also called first responders-are emergency medical technicians and/or paramedics. EMTs provide advanced first aid, cardiac assessment and CPR. Paramedics have additional training and may also administer certain medications. Both EMTs and paramedics communicate with and receive medical orders from a physician supervisor during the call.

4 How long will it take them to respond?

In Chicago, an ambulance should arrive within eight minutes. Suburban fire departments generally have comparable response times, depending on how far you are from the fire station.

5 What will they do when they get here?

The first responders will assess your child's condition, administer essential first aid (controlling bleeding, for example) and attempt to stabilize her breathing and circulation before or while transporting her to the hospital. They will also ask questions about how the emergency occurred and any significant information about your child's medical history, such as allergies and/or chronic medical conditions.

6 Do I need to give consent for treatment? What if my child is with a babysitter or other caregiver? And do I have the right to refuse treatment for my child?

According to state regulations, whoever calls 911 is automatically giving "implied consent" for treatment for the patient. This ensures that emergency staff is able to provide emergency treatment for a child even if no adult or guardian is present. If you decide to refuse transport to a hospital after the ambulance arrives, you will be asked to sign a "refusal of treatment" document.

7 What hospital will they take my child to? Ambulance staff will take your child to the nearest hospital that has appropriate facilities for treating your child's condition; in some cases this may not be the closest hospital. Depending on the type of emergency and where you are located, you may have a choice of two or three hospitals, especially if your child's condition is not life-threatening. In other cases, you may not have a choice.

8 Can I ride in the ambulance with my child? Yes. Usually one parent or other adult may ride in the front, next to the driver.

9 What should I bring with me to the hospital? If your child is covered by private medical insurance or a government program such as KidCare, bring your insurance card and identification, as well as your pediatrician's office phone number. It's a good idea to have copies of these documents stored in a convenient place so that if an emergency occurs, you won't have to spend time looking for them.

10 Who pays for the ambulance? In Chicago and most suburbs, the user is billed for ambulance services. Costs vary depending on your location and the services received, but generally range from $350 to $800. Many private insurance companies cover ambulance service; check your policy. In many cases, Medicaid or other government programs may pay for ambulance service that is considered medically necessary.

Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher living in Skokie. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.


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