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Know Your International Emergency Telephone Numbers

We all know our local emergency numbers. In the United States and Canada, we dial 9-1-1 when we need immediate police, fire, or ambulance services. If you are from a European country, you probably call 1-1-2. But what about when you are on the road and out of your home country? What number do you call? Here is our rundown on how to use and find international emergency telephone numbers and the story of how they came about.

History of International Emergency Telephone Numbers

Photo Courtesy of Wystan on Flickr. In the days when you didn’t need to dial a number, the operator would get you in touch with emergency services. In small cities and towns, the operator used to know the way to get in touch with the police department, fire department, doctors, and more. When we started switching to directly dialing numbers, you had to know the exact number and exchange for the local emergency service you needed, which was a pain.

In the 60’s in North America, dialing “0” was allowed to get to the operator to ease confusion.

The first emergency number in place was London’s in 1937 (9-9-9). An alarm sounded to get the operator’s attention when it was dialed. In the U.S., Los Angeles had the first emergency number (1-1-6) in 1946. 9-1-1 didn’t come until 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama.

The switch over to the now standard 9-1-1 took some time. Cities and municipalities needed to upgrade their phone systems, and phone service and legal jurisdictions didn’t always line up. It was possible to get the wrong emergency dispatch operator. Remote areas had problems connecting, and even today toll free 800 numbers are used by some sheriff’s offices.

Nowadays, every country has some form of standard, simple phone number that you can call to get the appropriate emergency response.

Finding a Country’s Emergency Number

It’s always a good idea to plan ahead for any emergencies that may occur during your next trip. Plan ahead and hopefully an emergency will never happen to you! We previously covered where to find medical care when you’re traveling, but if you need immediate attention, you’re going to need to call someone.

The easiest way to check for a countries emergency number is to Google it. Just be aware that many countries have multiple numbers corresponding to different services. Norway uses the European standard 1-1-2 for the police, but also has 1-1-3 for ambulance services and 1-1-0 for fire (and don’t forget 0-2-8-0-0 for non-emergency police assistance). China has different numbers for traffic accidents and private ambulances (in Beijing), and they are different than the numbers used in Hong Kong.

Plan ahead and write down or pre-program these numbers in to your phone. If you’re having a hard time with Google, Wikipedia has an extensive list of emergency numbers around the world.

Dialing an Emergency Number Abroad

You’re in another country and you witness an accident. Do you just dial 1-1-2 or 9-1-1 and hope to connect? There are a few factors to consider before making that call.

Is your phone a GSM phone? GSM is the standard telecom system for most of the world, so if you cannot connect, you cannot make that call. Some phones and carriers use CDMA, a competing technology, and may not be able to connect to the local network. Before you embark on your trip, check with your carrier or phone manufacturer to see if your phone will even work in the country you’re visiting.

Can you dial emergency services without a SIM card? In the U.S., the law states that all phones must be able to reach 9-1-1, even without a SIM card in place. This is not the case in some Latin America countries.

I forgot the local number! What number should I dial? If you do not have the local emergency number handy, don’t worry. Most modern cell phones and SIM cards recognize some standard emergency numbers (1-1-2, 9-1-1, & 9-9-9) and should connect you to the correct, local dispatcher or operator. Should is the key word because there may be that rare case where it might not work. In any event, you should still research and know the local number before you begin your travels. When I spoke to a representative from my wireless carrier, they said it was preferable to dial the local emergency number.

We hope you never have to utilize an emergency number in your travels, but just as you know carrying an umbrella is almost a sure way to ward off the rain, being prepared with the 9-1-1 comparable number will hopefully protect you against emergency situations.

Switchboard Photo courtesy of Wystan on Flickr.


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