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Urgent and emergency care services in England

When to dial 999: responding to emergencies

At some point, most people will either witness or be involved in an accident or experience a medical emergency. Knowing what to do next and who to call can potentially save lives.

Life-threatening emergencies

Call 999 in a medical emergency – when someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk.

Medical emergencies can include:

Call 999 immediately if you or someone else is having a heart attack or stroke. Every second counts with these conditions. Also call 999 if you think someone has had a major trauma. Major trauma is often the result of a serious road traffic accident, a stabbing, a shooting, a fall from height, or a serious head injury.

Find out more about major trauma services

Non-life-threatening emergencies

If it is not a life-threatening emergency and you or the person you are with does not need immediate medical attention, please consider other options before dialling 999:

Choose the best service for your needs, as this will ensure the ambulance service is able to respond to the people who need help the most.

What happens when I call 999?

If it is a genuine emergency, where someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk, call 999 and don't panic.

You can contact emergency services via SMS if you are deaf, hearing impaired or have a speech impediment. Visit the emergencySMS website for more information or to register your phone.

1. Answer the questions

Once you are connected to a call handler, you'll have to answer a series of questions to establish what's wrong, such as:

  • Where are you (including the area or postcode)?
  • What is the phone number you are calling from?
  • Exactly what has happened?

This will allow the operator to determine the most appropriate response as quickly as possible.

Dialling 999 does not necessarily mean an ambulance will be dispatched. The call handler will decide what is appropriate. It may be safe enough for you to be seen elsewhere, or you can be given telephone advice by a medically trained clinical adviser. An ambulance will be sent if it is a life-threatening emergency.

Response units that could be dispatched include:

  • an emergency ambulance
  • a rapid response vehicle or motorbike
  • a cycle response unit
  • a community first responder
  • a combination of the above

2. Don't hang up yet

Wait for a response from the ambulance control room, as they might have further questions for you, such as:

  • What is the age, gender and medical history of the patient?
  • Is the person awake or conscious and breathing?
  • Is there any serious bleeding or chest pain?
  • What is the injury and how did it happen?

The person who handles your call will let you know when they have all the information they need. You might also be instructed on how to give first aid until the ambulance arrives.

How you can assist the ambulance crew 

There are a number of things you can do to assist the ambulance service:

  • If you are in the street, stay with the patient until help arrives.
  • Call the ambulance service back if the patient's condition changes.
  • Call the ambulance service back if your location changes.
  • If you are calling from home or work, ask someone to open the doors and signal where the ambulance staff are needed.
  • Lock away family pets.
  • If you can, write down the patient's GP details and collect any medication they are taking.
  • If you can, inform the paramedics about any allergies the patient has.
  • Stay calm.

If appropriate, you may want to call the patient's doctor. The doctor may meet you at the A&E department, or call with important information about the patient.

How to provide first aid

If someone is injured in an incident, first check that you and the casualty are not in any danger. If you are, make the situation safe. When it's safe to do so, assess the casualty and dial 999 or 112 for an ambulance (if necessary). You can then carry out basic first aid.

It's important to stay calm and then try get an overview of the situation. See if you can identify what the most serious problem is. The most obvious problem is not always the most serious. Treat the most life-threatening problems, such as lack of breathing, bleeding or shock, first. Check for broken bones and other injuries afterwards.

If a person is unconscious but is breathing and has no other life-threatening conditions, they should be placed in the recovery position. If a person is not breathing normally after an accident, call for an ambulance and start CPR straight away if you can.

Page last reviewed: 14/09/2015

Next review due: 14/09/2017

Stroke

Take the F.A.S.T. test

Learn more about the signs of a stroke and make sure you know what to do in an emergency

Resuscitating a child

A step-by-step guide to resuscitating a child who has stopped breathing or whose heart has stopped

Vinnie Jones: Hard and Fast - hands-only CPR

Watch Vinnie Jones perform hands-only CPR to the beat of Stayin' Alive. CPR is not as hard as you may think. Just call 999 and then push Hard and Fast. This video was produced by the British Heart Foundation

Media last reviewed: 14/07/2015

Next review due: 14/07/2017