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Text to 911 goes live, but use with caution

Text To 911 Goes Live, With A Few Limitations

Here's good news: people can now text 911 in an emergency instead of having to call. Definitely helpful, but there are still frustrating limitations to the service.

The four major wireless carriers - AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon - have all gone live with support for national text-to-911 programs as of Thursday.

The service is meant for instances when people are hearing or speech impaired, if there is not enough signal to connect a phone call, or when calling could be dangerous, such as in a domestic abuse or kidnapping situation.

A social worker tells KSHB, "Being able to do the text instead of make the phone call could be a way to reach out for help without escalating the violence of the situation," .

But just because the networks support the service it doesn't mean the call centers themselves can receive those text messages. As of now, only select counties in 16 states are able to.

Check the Federal Communications Commission website to see if your county is equipped for emergency response to texts. If your call center can't receive texts, your phone will show a bounce-back message instructing you to call instead.

As Government Technology reports, the FCC is urging more states and counties to accommodate the service, but it will be a long time before the 6,000 call centers across the country can adapt.

Emergency officials can receive basic geolocation information from text messages, but its not quite enough. WISH spoke to the communication director for Tipton County in Indiana, which has implemented the texting service.

CHRIS BELL: "Once you ask for that help, our next question is immediately going to be, 'What is your location?' Because we need to know your location so we can get you help. That's probably the most important part of that text."

It's that kind of information stop-gap with texting that has officials saying its still best to call if you can, TechCrunch reports. Emergency dispatchers can often get important information just from listening to a phone call. CNET interviewed a dispatch supervisor on the topic:

​KELLY MURCH: "We'll get it to the officers that are out there and say, 'This person is a crying, screaming citizen. We're not able to get much because they're under a lot of stress. We have a location, this is what's going on that we can hear in the background.'"

What's more, the text-to-911 service could take much longer than dialing for a few reasons. For one thing, it takes longer to type and send texts than speak across a phone line.

And there's another factor. 911 calls are currently given priority in networks, and 911 texts will be treated as any other message, meaning it could take much longer to reach the dispatch center.

Join the discussion

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dennismlns May 16 2014 at 10:18 AM

It seams to me that if this was going to be implemented, they should make SURE everyone in EVERY state before starting it. there more impared people than just a hand full on counties in more than 16 states that might need to us it!

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krblaser May 16 2014 at 11:05 AM

you can find the list of the 16 states here http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2014/05/15/you-can-now-text-911-in-some-parts-of-the-country/

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bdgrizcp May 16 2014 at 11:13 AM

Seems like an unnecessary 'nice to have'. In an emergency a call is faster. Yeah, I get the part about the hearing and speech impaired, but somehow this kind of communication has gotten through on formats such as TTY for years and years. Considering the gobblygook many of us use for text messages, are you really sure the 911 operators will be able to decipher this gibberish? I don't think so either. The real issue here is the location the call is coming from, since unlike a land line the call can come from anywhere and the phone number does not have a fixed location. I'd suggest GPS but I have a privacy issue there.

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1 reply
erinjanespca bdgrizcp May 16 2014 at 3:43 PM

It's also a silent way to contact them if you're hiding.

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sw7027 May 16 2014 at 3:01 PM

As a 9-1-1 professional, I can say that texting to 9-1-1 is valuable for not only the hearing impaired, but those in situations where they cannot speak without endangering themselves. An example would be someone hiding from a home intruder.

However, national organizations that set the technological and operational standards for 9-1-1 have started to say publically that a voice call to 9-1-1 is always going to be the best method of contacting help in an emergency....if it is possible without endangering anyone. In short, just because you can text to 9-1-1 doesn't mean it's the best thing to do as a general rule when a voice call is possible.

Texting to 9-1-1 is still very new and is not without bugs, nor is it available everyplace. Accurate location info and, as someone else mentioned, the ability to communicate clearly can be very real issues.

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milliebsp May 16 2014 at 4:29 PM

Okay, I have a question NO one seems to be able to answer - not even our local police! It will be nice for people to be able to text 911. BUT, to me, this is more important:

WHY can't I call 911 using my bluetooth?

Police don't want us to use our hands to hold our cells while driving. Mine is usually in pocket or purse when I'm using my bluetooth. Can you imagine the risk of trying to steer the car while reaching to fumble in my pocket or purse?? It's ridiculous, and very dangerous!

I'm not asking for a solution, such as keeping my cell in a more accessible place while driving. I can figure that out on my own! I want to know WHY our bluetooths are not able to dial 911 via our voice command! Does ANYONE know the answer?

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