Even very young children will have an awareness of the Emergency Services, thanks to popular characters such as Fireman Sam and the fact that most young children are fascinated by the sight of a high-speed ambulance or shiny red fire engine roaring down the street, sirens blaring. Build on your young child's interest by making it clear what these vehicles are for - don't use frightening, hard-to-understand terminology, of course, but take the opportunity to tell your young child that an ambulance could be rushing a poorly person to hospital or they may be on their way to help someone who has had an accident.
Children are never too young to be told about the significance of the 999 number but it must be instilled in them that this number must only ever be used in a genuine emergency. Depending on their age you may need to give your child some solid examples of what constitutes a genuine emergency because a child's concept of 'emergency' can of course be a very different thing to yours. Explain that losing a toy or having a fight with your brother is not an emergency and that under no circumstances, even if they have been told to by another person such as a friend, should they call 999 for a joke or 'just to see what happens'.
Older children will usually understand what is meant by a proper emergency but, being careful not to frighten your child, it's a good idea to explain what medical situations would definitely require a call to 999, including the following:
If a person has/is: chest pain; difficulty breathing; lost consciousness; lost a lot of blood; severely burnt or scalded themselves; choking; fitting or concussion; drowning; a severe allergic reaction.
It's important that children know they should call 999 in the above circumstances if there are no adults around - their call could save a person's life. In addition make it clear that your child can contact the Fire Service on the same number if a fire starts at home and there is no adult around or if they witness a fire breaking out elsewhere and they are the only witness.
Should your child need to call 999 it's vital they know what information they'll need to supply to the operator. Aside from being used in a medical emergency it's a good idea to teach your child their full name and address as early as possible, for other scenarios such as finding themselves lost.
It's important children also understand that they should use the home phone rather than a mobile for calling 999 - when people call from a home number the Emergency Services automatically receive the phone number, address and household name of the caller so they are able to trace calls without having to rely on information given to them by the caller, which is particularly useful in the case of a child who is unable to remember or communicate such vital details to the operator. However operators are required by law to ask a caller for their address - including postcode and phone number - so your child should be prepared for this.
But if they are not able to use the house phone for whatever reason, it's important children realise they can use a mobile phone if necessary. Here is some other advice to give your children about calling 999:
As well as making sure your child has an understanding about when and how to contact the emergency services it's also a good idea to make sure they know of other adults nearby they can go to in an emergency. Do you have a trustworthy neighbour, for example, that your child could go to for help? Having another responsible adult close at hand can make all the difference in an emergency so make sure your child is familiar with a neighbour and knows which house they live at.