Can you Text 911?

Yes, you can. Sending a text message to 911 is officially known as Text-to-911, and it is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Texting 911 is straightforward; but, there are a few details that the FCC and Public Safety Departments want you to be aware of when sending emergency text messages.


Understanding Text-to-911

In 2014, the U.S. rolled out its Text-to-911 campaign for those in need of emergency assistance to send an SMS to emergency responders. Despite the national rollout, it’s important to note that texting isn?t available everywhere. Use this guide to understand when, where, and how you should text 911 when a phone call isn’t an option.  Not all states allow texting 911 and this should be considered first before trying.

To understand Text-to-911, we need to take a look at who actually receives the public’s emergency text messages. Across the United States, there are 911 call centers. At these locations, 911 call takers receive and respond to emergency phone calls and emergency text messages. call takers gather information about emergency situations and then start the process of dispatching public safety personnel like Fire Suppression, Emergency Medical Services or Law Enforcement. With that in mind, what information does a call taker need to know? What should be included in an emergency text message?

 

What should be in an emergency text message?

To effectively use text-to-911, it is important to include three key pieces of information in your emergency text message, as highlighted by the City of Denver’s Department of Public Safety:

1. Send your text to the number 911, without including any spaces or dashes. Only input the numbers.

2. The LOCATION is of utmost importance. Regardless of the severity of the incident, sharing your precise location enables public safety officials to swiftly locate and assess the situation.

3. Provide a brief SUMMARY of the situation. This helps call takers quickly understand the nature of the emergency and take appropriate action.

Numerous states across the United States are currently in the progressive stages of implementing text-to-911 services within their jurisdictions. These states include Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Vermont, Alaska, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, Oregon, Washington, California, Kansas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Dakota, Wyoming, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Hawaii, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Utah.

It is worth noting that the availability of text-to-911 services varies across different counties within these states. Therefore, it is recommended to search by your specific address, city, or county to determine whether the county you reside in currently supports text-to-911 functionality. It is essential to remain updated since the areas offering this service are subject to change.

For a more comprehensive approach, remember to verify if text-to-911 is supported in your area, as availability can vary between counties. Use clear language, avoiding abbreviations, emojis, or slang, to facilitate better understanding. Include essential information about the emergency, such as the type of assistance required, any injuries, the number of people involved, or hazards present. Be prepared for follow-up questions from emergency operators and remain calm and patient, understanding that text-to-911 may not provide an immediate response. Lastly, reserve text-to-911 solely for true emergencies, refraining from sending non-emergency messages or testing the service.  Just keep in mind Rhode Island and New Mexico do not allow texting 911.

What happens next?

911 Call takers, upon receiving an emergency text message will respond to the initial text with more questions. Responses to these questions help the call taker gather the necessary information about the emergency so that they can then relay it to the responding public safety officials.

 

When responding to these messages and communicating with the call taker it’s important to remember the following items:

  • If the person sending the emergency text message is able, it’s important that they remain attentive to the conversation with the call taker.
  • Avoid using slang or abbreviations in messages with call takers. 
  • It’s important to remember that the call takers aren’t present at the emergency and cannot always intuit what is happening. The details of the emergency need to be communicated concisely.
  • Don’t delete the conversation with 911 or turn your phone off until the call taker makes it clear that it’s ok to do so. 


With the above information we’ve established who is involved in Text-to-911, and some of the rules for how to send text messages to 911 call centers. Yet, the FCC and call centers state that they do prefer that members of the public call in emergencies rather than texting. So, who should send emergency text messages instead of calling?

Who should text instead of call?

  • Someone who is deaf, hard of hearing or has a speech disability.
  • Someone who is in a remote location that does not have a good enough signal to sustain a voice call but can send a text message.
  • Someone who fears that making a voice call will endanger themself or compromise their safety.
  • When the capacity of cellular service is overwhelmed but it may be possible to send a text instead of a voice call. 

 

Where is Text-to-911 available?

Text-to-911 is available in an increasing number of places across the United States, but it is still not present everywhere. The FCC provides a spreadsheet listing the call centers that utilize Text-to-911. Check it out to see if your area’s 911 call center can receive and send emergency text messages.

Based on the information available, there are two states that currently do not support text-to-911 in any of their counties: New Mexico and Rhode Island.

 

What if my area doesn’t have Text-to-911?

If you send an emergency text message to your area’s 911 call center, but they don’t have Text-to-911 available, you’ll receive a message in return that tells you that the service is unavailable. This is called a bounce back and it is required by the FCC so that someone can know if their emergency message was received or not. This person will need to call 911 to communicate their emergency. 

Conclusion

Text-to-911 is a simple way for you to connect with a local 911 call center to report an emergency. While 911 call centers prefer for the public to call in, texting is still a relevant option that should be used when calling is not possible or appropriate. If you do end up needing to send a text message to 911, it’s important to remember a couple essential items: Write your location in the body of your message. If you can, sending at least the location of your incident will allow public safety officials to find the emergency. And if the situation permits, stay attentive to the text conversation with the 911 call taker. This will help public safety get the information they need. Following these two steps can make all the difference in the world.

Remember, if you can’t call in an emergency, know that Text-to-911 could save someone’s life.

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Scott Earnest

Scott Earnest

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