Text Message to 911

Text to 911
Call 911 if you can, text if you cant

What is Text to 911 Emergency Messaging Capability

This article provides an overview of a service called Text to 911. The service is in the process of rolling out to cities in the United States. I’ll explain what it is, who uses it, and the proper procedures to follow in an emergency.

What is Text to 911?

Text to 911 is a service that allows a mobile phone or other electronic devices to send an electronic text message to reach 911 emergency call centers. In August of 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began requiring all wireless carriers (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc.) to deliver an emergency text message to Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) that requests them.

PSAPs are essentially emergency call dispatch centers. If one of these organizations requests the text-to-911 service, the providers must deploy the service in that particular area. Typically, they must do so within six months.

Who is Using Text to 911?

Eventually, the text-to-911 service will be available across the country. However, the service is only available in specific markets where 911 call centers have elected to implement the service. At the time of this writing, the FCC estimated that a little more than 10% (approximately 650) could accept text messages. That’s out of more than 6,000 dispatch centers around the country.

With the recent spike in mass shootings, police departments are exploring ways to leverage technology. They feel that technology could be used to facilitate emergency communication. More and more PSAPs continue to transition to implement the system every year.

Another great benefit of the service is that it allows those who are deaf or hard of hearing to use it to get in touch with the police. For example, a deaf woman who lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, used the service to contact local police. She used it to report that she saw two children locked in a car in a shopping mall parking lot. Fortunately, the local police received the message and rescued the two children safely.

In another example, a teenage girl sent a 911 text to submit a false report. She falsely reported there was a person with a gun at a high school in Marietta, Georgia. After determining the report was bogus, the police later arrested her at her home.

What To Do During an Emergency

Before you find yourself in an emergency, check with your local police department to see if the PSAP in your local area supports the messaging functionality. If they confirm it is available, use it only if you cannot make a call.

Since the service is not yet widely available, there is a possibility that the system is not available in your area. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you think you can send a typed message for help only to get a bounce-back message (see below) that the service is unavailable.

Text-to-911 is intended to be a complement to, not a substitute for, existing voice-based services. If you’re in an emergency, your first option should be to make a voice call. If you cannot make a voice call, try the text option.

What are people saying about it?

In general, the system has been well-received by government officials, and there is consensus that it will help save lives. Consider the situations in which having the ability to send a text message instead of making a phone call would be used. In certain situations, a person must hide or be completely quiet, such as in a hostage situation, kidnapping, or robbery. Quietly and discreetly, sending a message could save someone’s life.

Current Issues With the System

Emergency officials remain clear that the preferred method of contacting emergency services is via a voice call. This allows the dispatcher to gather more details quickly. Plus, it helps dispatchers get a feel for the caller’s stress level, emotions, and the nature of the call. There are difficult to ascertain via an electronic message. 

Many people have concerns about the new system. For example, people might start using the service for situations where it isn’t necessary. Municipalities that deployed the system has attempted to address possible concerns by promoting the slogan, “Call if you can. Text if you can’t.”

One important note is that emergency responders can’t automatically see someone’s approximate location when messages are sent. So if you’re in an area where the service is available, provide an address or location upfront. It’s a good idea to be as descriptive as possible if you have time.

The FCC continues to explore additional issues about text-to-911. However, ongoing issues include having the ability to include location details, roaming support, and real-time communications.

Bounce-back Messages in Areas Where the Service Isn’t Available

So, what happens if you attempt to send a message to 911 when the service is unavailable? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that all wireless carriers and electronic messaging providers send a “bounce-back” message. The bounce-back message is intended to inform you that the service is unavailable in your area. Instead, you should contact emergency services by phone. As the service becomes more popular and spreads nationwide, this feature will become more and more critical.

More Information

To learn more about the service and implementation, visit the FCC website. Also, you can contact the Consumer Help Center via phone at:

TTY: 1-888-835-5322
Videophone for ASL: 1-844-432-2275

To contact the FCC via regular mail, use the following address:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554

If you have any questions about Text to 911 capabilities, please post them below.

Related: Police Officers


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