In Case of Emergency

Forget 911.  One of the first things you should do when arriving in Paris is to make a list of phone numbers to use in case of emergency and post it by your phone.  If you only have a mobile phone,  post the list where you won’t lose it and everyone in your household can access it, for example, on your refrigerator.  Finally sit down with all members of your household and make sure they know the basics of what to do in an emergency.    As the old saw goes, better safe than sorry.

The key numbers are:

Pompiers (fire department):   18

SAMU (emergency medical services):  15

Police:  17

Poison Control:  01 40 05 48 48

Note:  112 is the Europe-wide number for emergencies.  While French authorities prefer that you use 18 and 15 while in France, you may want to put “112” in your mobile phone just in case you find yourself in need of urgent assistance while travelling somewhere else in Europe.

When telephoning for an emergency service, have the following information ready:

  • Your name and address, including your floor (étage) and door/gate entrance code
  • The patient’s name and age
  • The nature of illness or injury (what happened and when)
  • The patient’s present condition (for example, whether the patient is unconscious, vomiting, bleeding, confused)
  • Any other pertinent information (for example if patient is diabetic,  has a heart condition, takes blood thinner medication)

No matter what their level of French, every member of your family must learn how to say his or her name and address in French.  If you have to, write it out phonetically on your “in case of emergency” list.

Je m’appelle (My name is): 

J’habite à (I live at): Give street number, street name, arrondissement or town

Mon numero de telephone est (My phone number is):

Emergency Services Explained

Your first call in case of an emergency should always be to the pompiers (fire department).  Firefighters in Paris and other large towns in France are trained paramedics, fully prepared to address life-threatening situations.  Their emergency response times are generally under five minutes.   After triaging and analyzing an emergency, the pompiers may send their own ambulance or will alert SAMU or other medical professionals. 

SAMU (short for Service d’Aide Medicale d’Urgence) is a specialized public emergency service that works in close alliance with other emergency services as well as with the emergency and intensive care units of the public hospitals.  Its ambulances are manned by teams of trained medical personnel and equipped with miniature emergency rooms equipped with all the materials necessary to treat emergency situations at the scene, including cardiac and respiratory arrest.  In essence, they bring the emergency room to you.

SAMU is organized geographically into departments with a central telephone number for each area in France. Calls are answered under the direction of a physician on duty who decides, based on careful questioning of the caller, how to handle the call.  Each department has a pediatric team trained to treat severely ill or injured children.

 SAMU will almost always have someone available who can speak or at least understand English, usually the physician. If it is a life-threatening situation, the dispatcher will connect you to an emergency physician who will determine the appropriate level of care needed and can talk you through any emergency procedures that need to be accomplished while waiting for the emergency team to arrive on the scene.

If patients need to be hospitalized, they are usually taken to a public hospital.  Each SAMU center has a list (which is updated three times a day) of bed availability and locations of specialty teams in all public hospitals.   If a bed is available, patients can be transported directly to room or intensive care unit, bypassing the emergency department.

You can be taken to a private hospital upon request but you will need to know, in advance, where you want to go and if that institution is prepared to handle your situation.

Many Americans are used to using the emergency room for urgent care situations.  But the French system is different.   Emergency medicine is not a recognized specialty in France; instead ERs are manned by qualified doctors with various specialties who take turns staffing the service.  Moreover, not every hospital is equipped to handle all emergencies. It is best to check the services available at the hospital closest to your home.  If you do end up going to the emergency room, you will need to follow up with your personal physician afterwards.   Ask for a copy of your records before leaving the ER to bring to your doctor.

Rather than call the emergency room if say, your child wakes up in the middle of the night having difficulty breathing or with a raging high fever,  a better option is to call SOS Medicins at 01.47.07.77.77.  SOS Medicins will send a physician to your home day or night.  Be prepared to describe over the phone your address, phone number, victim’s age and condition.  Doctors making home visits do not normally dispense medications, but will often administer injections on the spot if needed.  Prescriptions for medications can be filled out at your local pharmacie;  within each neighborhood, pharmacies coordinate so that one, called the pharmacie de garde,  is available after hours.  (The rotation list for which pharmacy serves as pharmacie de garde at which time is typically posted on the front door.)

Special thanks to Amanda Nagele and Anna Giulione for helping provide accurate information for this post.

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