When Should You Call an Ambulance?

In cases of medical emergencies, knowing when you should call an ambulance can mean saving the person’s life. Since, statistically speaking, it’s very likely that at some point in our lives we will be involved in a situation that requires urgent medical care, it’s useful to know how to recognize the signs, what to do and what to expect. 

Questions to Ask Yourself

Of course, when in doubt, it’s better to just call. It’s true that a lot of people call for situations that technically don’t constitute “medical emergencies”. That’s because they’re experiencing strong emotions and cannot be expected to objectively evaluate how serious the symptoms are. They also don’t typically have medical training so they’re basing their assessment on how bad they feel or how bad the person they’re caring for tells them they feel. 

But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call and just hope for the best. 

There are some questions that can help guide you:

  • Do you fear that the person’s condition is life threatening?
  • Could their condition worsen on the way to the hospital if you were to drive them there?
  • Do you fear that moving them might cause further injury?
  • Do they need the skills of paramedics or EMTs to stabilize them enough so they can reach the hospital? Paramedic and EMT Certification programs provide the required knowledge and training to begin medical treatment before reaching the hospital. They’ll also be communicating by radio with the doctors and nurses in the emergency department and alert them of the patient’s condition in advance. This ensures that everyone is ready before the ambulance gets there and they can avoid potentially dangerous delays. 
  • Would the delays caused by distance and traffic conditions put the person’s life at risk?

Another factor to consider is context. If the person experiencing the symptoms is a child or an elderly person living alone it’s better to call an ambulance. It’s difficult to tell how serious symptoms are when it comes to children as they can’t accurately tell you what’s wrong and with the elderly, their condition can quickly deteriorate. 

Symptoms of a Medical Emergency

Even though the decision to call can vary based on context, the over-all health of the person, age and if there’s someone there who can drive them to the hospital, there are some general signs that indicate the need for urgent medical intervention.

These are:

  • Loss of consciousness 
  • They appear to not be breathing
  • They’re having chest pain, they’re struggling to speak and breath, numbness and weakness
  • Sudden paralysis of the face, arm, leg
  • Severe bleeding
  • Sudden state of confusion, they don’t appear to be aware of what’s happening around them
  • Severe allergic reaction
  • Severe burns
  • Trauma from falling, being by a car or anything of that sort – high risk of injury to the head or spine
  • Severe pain
  • Seizures
  • They ingested poison, dangerous medications or substances

Maybe you realized that some of these are symptoms of a stroke: sudden numbness or paralysis in one side of the body, confusion, difficulty speaking, trouble seeing, loss of balance and coordination and severe headache. When you see these signs, you need to call and ambulance immediately because they need treatment within three hours to minimize the brain damage that strokes cause. 

If you suspect someone is overdosing, call an ambulance and put them in the recovery position. They may have problems breathing, vomiting, agitation, some psychotic symptoms and changes in normal body temperature (hyperthermia or hypothermia). Try to find out what they took and if they are not able to tell you, you may be able to find them in their surrounding so you can instruct the paramedics. Don’t give them coffee to wake them up or put them in cold water. This tends to make the symptoms worse. 

What Happens When You Call an Ambulance?

When you call the emergency number you will first be asked which type of service you need – police, ambulance or fire rescue. You tell them you need an ambulance and you will be redirected. 

Once you’re connected to the operator, they will ask you where you’re located, the phone number you’re calling from and to describe the situation. Try to remain as calm as possible so you can give this information quickly and accurately. It’s generally better to prepare for this kind of situations by sticking a note with clear instruction on how to get to your house or apartment building on the fridge. When you’re anxious, it will be much easier to simply read them. 

The operator will decide whether you need an ambulance based on the factors we discussed above. They will also instruct you to stay on the line as they may need additional information such as age, gender and medical history of the patient, their location in the house (example: upstairs, in the bedroom) and other details about their state. They may also instruct you on how to give first-aid over the phone, while the ambulance gets to your address. 

Other Things You Can Do to Help

We already mentioned having a note with clear directions to you home. You should also have a file with the medical history of every family member and a list of medications they’re currently on. 

If you have any pets you should take them to another room so they don’t get aggressive when a bunch of strangers come into the house and they don’t understand why everyone is so agitated. 

If possible, move furniture out of the way so the EMS crew have room for the stretcher and their equipment. 

In case your house number is not clear, you should turn on the porch light or have someone wait outside so they can flag down the ambulance. 

Some people will try to “dress” the person for travel. This isn’t a very helpful because the staff will typically need to remove the clothes so they can access their arms, chest and abdomen.

Another important piece of advice is to make sure you teach your kids how to call the emergency number, including from cellphones. It might be that, at some point in time, they’re the only ones around.