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How to Recognize an Emergency Situation and Why You Must Act Quickly

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

Author Steven Grella is a veteran police detective, trained EMT, American Red Cross lifesaving skills trainer and father of 2 young children.


How do you know if someone is in an emergency situation?

The interpretation of an emergency situation may be different from one person to the next. Oftentimes we might hesitate because we aren’t able to recognize the emergency right away or we are paralyzed by a fear to act in the moment. If you find yourself in doubt, it is always best to err on the side of caution and call 911 or your local emergency number.

Some general signs that someone may be in an emergency situation include:

- They are unresponsive or not breathing

- They have a severe injury, such as a head injury

- They are having a seizure

- They are choking

If you see any of these signs, don’t hesitate to call 911. The sooner you act, the better the chances are for the person in need. Remember, you can always hang up with 911 if it turns out to be a false alarm. Even if EMS and emergency services arrive and no care is needed they will not fault you for being proactive. The person you were helping may still need to be evaluated and having professional advice on scene can be extremely beneficial. If no care is given first responders will simply complete RMA paperwork, which stands for "Refused Medical Attention". This is at no cost to you and you can always call again if the person's situation worsens in the future.

If it turns out it is an emergency, you will be applauded for calling 911 because every second counts.

My Recognition Story

I once needed to provide emergency care for my son, Lucas, when he was only 7 days old. He was born 5 weeks early and was only 4 and a half pounds. I had just finished giving him his bottle at around midnight and he was screaming and crying because he was still hungry. Not wanting to wake up my wife, who was still recovering from childbirth just a week prior, I decided to pour more milk into his bottle on my own while holding my newborn in my other arm. I need to tilt a bit and dip my shoulder to pour the milk, which caused my son to lay slightly upside down. It was at the exact moment that he decided to spit up! The position he was in caused the spit-up milk to get stuck in his airway, causing him to gasp for air. For the next 15 minutes he switched from hysterically crying to periods of 10 to 15 seconds where he was unable to breathe and would start to turn blue.

Trust Your Instincts

My instincts immediately kicked in and I went to work. I suctioned his mouth and was able to get a good amount of mucus out of his airway, but it still wasn’t enough. After a few minutes my wife woke up from all the commotion and pleaded with me to call 911 and have advanced emergency medical services respond. I attempted to clear my son's airway for a few more minutes before I finally gave in and called the local EMS to respond. In the end, my son was able to naturally clear his airway through a combination of coughing and my administering of emergency medical care, but my own belief in my training delayed our call to 911, which could have ended up being a critical error.

The point of my story is to help you understand that everyone's level of training and comfortability with administering emergency care will be different. But as soon as you identify an emergency you should put aside your ego or hesitation and get advanced medical services on the way. I promise you every person that provides emergency care wants you to call as soon as possible.

Recognizing An Emergency Quickly is Important

In an emergency situation, every second counts. The sooner you recognize that someone is in an emergency, the sooner you can act to help them. This could mean the difference between life and death.

Did you know that cardiovascular disease, which means a failure of the heart, is by far the number one cause of death in the world at over 17 million deaths per year. There are over 450,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease per year in the U.S. alone. 88% of cardiac arrests occur at home, yet only 30% of Americans say they have the skills to perform CPR, leaving 70% of the population feeling helpless to assist a loved one in need.

Response Times

The average time for an ambulance to arrive in the United States is 7 minutes and sadly increases to up to 14 minutes in rural areas. Why is this important? Well, from the moment the heart stops beating it takes about 2-4 minutes for a victim to experience brain damage and about 4-6 minutes until death. It doesn’t matter if they are an Olympic swimmer or your grandparent in the kitchen. 2-4 minutes until brain damage and 4-6 minutes until death. If a victim experiencing a cardiac or breathing emergency has to wait for the ambulance to arrive before receiving care, their chance of survival is 10%. If the victim receives pre-ambulatory medical care their chance of survival triples!

Key Takeaways:

- If you’re ever in doubt, it’s always best to call 911.

- Some signs that someone may be in an emergency situation include being unresponsive or not breathing, having a severe injury, or choking.

- Every second counts in an emergency situation, so don’t hesitate to call for help.

- Learning CPR and First Aid can help you save a life. Lifeguard LI offers Red Cross classes in both CPR and First Aid. Visit our website to find a class near you.


If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency, call 911 immediately. don’t hesitate! Every second counts. You could be the difference between life and death.

It is my mission to help educate as many people as I possibly can in CPR, first aid and other lifesaving skills. I hope this article helped you to better recognize an emergency situation and why it is important to act quickly. Join my email list where I highlight lifesaving skills tips and keep you up to date with the latest safety trends.

Recommended Resources on If you're interested in learning more about lifesaving training, check out my in-depth guide How To Save A Life With CPR


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Hey, I'm Steve Grella, founder of Lifeguard LI. It is my mission to teach every capable person CPR and lifesaving skills. My only question is, do you have what it takes to save a life?


About Our Founder

Steve Grella is a father of two young boys. He is a Police Detective, EMT, lifeguard trainer and swim instructor, who brings over 20 years of knowledge and expertise in safety and service. He has dedicated his life to educating students in vital lifesaving training and now strives to provide expert resources to arm you with the skills and training to one day save a life if called upon.

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