Picture yourself walking down the street in perfect weather. It’s a sunny day, all seems well, and then you come across a person collapsed on the ground before you. They aren’t moving. You pull out your phone and dial the number for an ambulance, 119, but then your mind goes blank.

In the 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake there has been no shortage of introductions to so-called disaster vocabulary. There’s also a multilingual support system in place to help those who don’t speak Japanese make emergency calls. Information can sometimes get lost in translation, though, so in order to minimize the potential for miscommunication, reviewing what to say when calling either 119 (for fire and ambulance) or 110 (for police) is important, as you never know when it might come in handy.

Let’s start with 119番 (hyakujūkyū-ban). If you’re in a crowd and need help, you can always ask someone else to make the call: 119番お願いします (hyakujūkyū-ban onegaishimasu, please [call] 119). If you’re the one that has to make the call, an operator should pick up within seconds and ask, 火事ですか?救急ですか? (Kaji desu ka? Kyūkyū desu ka?, Fire or first aid?) If you’re calling 110番 (hyakutō-ban) for the police, you should hear, 事件ですか?事故ですか? (Jiken desu ka, jiko desu ka?, Crime or accident?)

Let’s suppose you need first aid. Simplicity and speed are important here, so you could respond with: 救急車が必要です (kyūkyūsha ga hitsuyō desu, an ambulance is needed). On average, it should take a 救急車 (kyūkyūsha, ambulance) around eight or nine minutes to respond to an emergency call.

Next, the operator will ask for your location. Generally, this can be phrased in two ways: 住所を教えてください (Jūsho o oshiete kudasai, Please tell me your address) or 場所を教えてください (Basho o oshiete kudasai, Please tell me where you are).

A specific address is best, but if you’re calling from outside, and you don’t know exactly where you are, they’ll likely ask for a 通称名 (tsūshōmei, commonly used name, like a local nickname) or a 目標物 (mokuhyōbutsu, a target/landmark) so that they can pinpoint your location more precisely. Mentioning any 公園 (kōen, parks), 駅 (eki, stations) or 道路名 (dōromei, street names) would be a good place to start.

With the request for an ambulance sent, it may be a good opportunity to let the operator know if you are not confident about your Japanese. A useful way to express this, as with any call you’re making, would be 日本語は苦手です (Nihongo wa nigate desu, my Japanese is poor). You can also just state 外国人です (gaikokujin desu, I’m a foreigner), which, politics aside, should alert the person on the other end of the call to speak slowly and simply.

With the basic information out of the way, the operator will ask you some questions about the person who needs help: どなたが具合悪いんですか (Donata ga guai warui-n desu ka, Who is feeling unwell)? This could be you, a 友だち (tomodachi, friend) or an 赤の他人 (aka no tanin, complete stranger).

The operator will likely follow up with questions about the injured person’s age: お歳はいくつですか (O-toshi wa ikutsu desu ka, How old is [the person feeling unwell])? In this case, you can aim for an age, 20代 (niju-dai, 20s) or simply say 赤ちゃん (akachan, baby), 子ども (kodomo, child) or お年寄り (o-toshiyori, senior citizen).

Next, there will be questions about the situation. Depending on your answer to these, the operator will likely deliver some instructions on how to help. A first-aid course sounds pretty helpful about now, but barring that, you can always make sure your Japanese is up to par.

Three questions that could pop up are 今意識ありますか? (Ima ishiki arimasu ka?, Is [the person] conscious right now?), 出血していますか? (Shukketsu shite-imasu ka?, Is the person bleeding?) and 呼吸はありますか? (Kokyū wa arimasu ka?, Is [the person] breathing?) You could opt to give the operator this information yourself by saying 意識がありません (Ishiki ga arimasen, There’s no consciousness [The person is unconscious]), 出血しています (Shukketsu shite-imasu, [The person] is bleeding) or 呼吸をしていません (Kokyū o shite-imasen, There is no breath [The person is not breathing]).

Depending on the けが (kega, injury), the operator may instruct you to perform 胸骨圧迫 (kyōkotsuappaku, chest compressions) until emergency services arrive. In this case, if the person isn’t already on their back, the operator may tell you to 仰向けに寝かしてください (aomuke ni nekashite kudasai, please lay them face up) before performing 胸骨圧迫.

Finally, the operator will likely ask, 今一人ですか? (Ima hitori desu ka?, Are you alone right now?) Emergency services will also want to know your name and phone number so that they can keep in touch.

Being able to describe the scene is important. For example, if there was a traffic accident, you might say, 車2台が正面衝突しました (kuruma ni-dai ga shōmenshōtotsu shimashita, two cars collided head on). If both drivers were hurt badly, let the operator know by saying, 運転手さんは二人とも大けがをしています (untenshu-san wa futari tomo ōkega o shite-imasu, both drivers are injured badly).

Now let’s suppose you’re reporting a fire. Just like in the first scenario, the operator will want to know your location. Once they’ve confirmed that, the conversation could go something like this:

119: 何が燃えていますか?

あなた: 建物の二階から火と煙が出ています。

119: あなたは安全な場所にいますか?

あなた: はい。

119: 逃げ遅れた人はいますか?

あなた: 分かりません。

119: Nani ga moete-imasu ka?

Anata: Tatemono no ni-kai kara hi to kemuri ga dete-imasu.

119: Anata wa anzenna basho ni imasu ka?

Anata: Hai.

119: Nige-okureta hito wa imasu ka?

Anata: Wakarimasen.

119: What is burning?

You: Fire and smoke is coming out the second floor of a building.

119: Are you in a safe place?

You: Yes.

119: Has anyone been left behind?

You: I don’t know.

In some cases, 分かりません is the only reply you can give with any certainty. Hopefully, you’ll never be in a situation where you need to use this language, but like that 非常持ち出し袋 (hijō mochidashi-bukuro, emergency go bag) you should have stored away in your closet, it’s a good idea to be prepared by having these important phrases in mind.

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