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Text 911: Calling for help without making a call

By Wilson Ring
May. 20, 2014 12:49 AM EDT

Text To 911 Goes Live, With A Few Limitations
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Sometimes a voice call to 911 just won't work, such as for deaf people in need of help or in certain domestic violence cases.

Now, in a big step toward moving the nation's emergency dispatch system out of voice-only technology that dates to the 1960s, four major wireless phone companies are providing the services to local governments that want it and have the capability to use it.

Local governments in 16 states are using it, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and Vermont became the first to offer the technology statewide Monday.

The four major providers - Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T - voluntarily committed to providing the service by May 15. The FCC has required all service providers to offer it by the end of the year.

Brian Fontes, the chief executive officer of the Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association, said the four major carriers offering text-to-911 is "a big deal."

He said that 911 texting is part of a broader push to use technology to enhance the information that can be provided to emergency responders and to put emergency call centers on an equal footing with the technology many people carry in their pockets.

Some professional sports teams already allow fans to report unruly behavior inside stadiums and arenas through texting, while law enforcement has started using text messaging during standoff negotiations.

"It's been a long time - years, decades - since our nation's 911 systems have been advanced," Fontes said. "They are pretty much still almost 100 percent voice-centric, 1960s technology."

The FCC tells people to limit texts for help to circumstances when voice calls can't be made, such as for the deaf or hard of hearing, or in domestic violence cases or at other times when it's not safe to speak.

Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first to use text 911 in June 2009, said Judy Flores, director of the consolidated communication center for Black Hawk County, located in Waterloo.

"It's worked great," Flores said, adding that Iowa is expected to expand the service statewide within the next few weeks.

The text-to-911 service is now limited to text only - photos, videos and location information will have to wait for the next generation of the technology.

Fontes said he expected the use of text-to-911 would grow, but he can't say how fast. Vermont is one of the few states in the country with a statewide emergency 911 phone system, making rollout easier.

While the number using text 911 is small -there have only been 34 legitimate 911 texts for help since Vermont started using the system, compared to 208,000 911 voice calls last year - David Tucker, executive director of Vermont's Enhanced 911 board, notes that it has saved at least one life after dispatchers received a text about a suicide-by-hanging in progress.

"We were able to get a location for the person and it's my understanding the police broke down the door," Tucker said. "The person had already hung themselves. They cut him down and revived him."

Join the discussion

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choice4luv May 20 2014 at 7:49 AM

THIS would have helped me in a life-and-death situation a few years ago. I was stranded in a car in Mt. Hood National Forest, and could not get a call to 911 go through--though a text might have, because it uses a very small amount of data compared to a voice call.

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1 reply
Pantino4 choice4luv May 20 2014 at 8:55 AM

glad you are ok, now.

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Allan Freedman May 20 2014 at 9:04 AM

In the period of time that woman called 9-1-1 over 37 times, she could have called 4-1-1 and acquired the local police number, then called that number for help. It seems like a long, drawn out process, but when 9-1-1 fails, repeated calling will not always get you results.

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2 replies
wcbern Allan Freedman May 20 2014 at 1:45 PM

Bad idea... In many parts of the country the local PD offices are not staffed 24x7 and so the caller would likely get an answering machine with a message " if you have a emergency hang up and call 911". Most likely the situation for this woman involved her panicking and not allowing the system to connect her call which takes longer than a normal call- possibly up to 30-45 seconds. And if there is a queue on the line each time she hangs up she loses her place in the queue which increases the delay in getting help. As for gps location service on a cell, it is still dependent on the device being able to "see the satellites" so if you are in a building it may not work. The cell systems do triangulate if possible but again in rural areas with thin coverage it may not work. Best thing- try 911, be patient, listen to the directions of the dispatcher, and know your location so you can get the responders to you.

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1 reply
serenajsaur wcbern May 20 2014 at 2:23 PM

Our 911 system where I live is routinely "down" in times of definite need. There was a bad crash one block over from my house and we got a message that stated the system was down for maintenance. Why?

First responders eventually made it out there, but it was serious enough to need 4 ambulances and a police investigation, since it was near a school and not a major road.

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WatergirlHawaii Allan Freedman May 20 2014 at 3:12 PM

After call 2, I'd call my neighbor/brother/sister/mother/BF and tell them to send police/fire/ambulance ASAP!

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jobkpr May 20 2014 at 11:35 AM

Even my old flip phone has gps, and they can find me if need be. Also, go to Dr.Phil's website to get an app that will automatically dial 911! It's meant for domestic violence, but will work for any type of emergency. If your phone doesn't have GPS, then get it. I rarely use mine for phone calls, but in case of a car emergency, or crash, you can be located. Also make sure you have your ICE number (In Case of Emergency) stored in your phone.

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lpengrg May 20 2014 at 2:49 PM

When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.

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porschedoc May 20 2014 at 10:43 AM

If you text "Help" to 911, how do they know your location if you are using your cell phone? Does the 911 staff have the capability to trace the location of the call and respond?

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1 reply
pameryntom porschedoc May 20 2014 at 10:49 AM

That is not universally true. In high crime areas, Fire and EMS are often not allowed into areas without specific information and police have been "lured" to traps by phoney 911 calls. In areas of high gang influence, otherwise responsible people risk their own well being by calling 911. TXTing will not solve all those problems but it would allow greater privacy and encourage more details as to what is happening and where so that polic/fire/EMS have a better understanding of what they are walking into.

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2 replies
lisacatz pameryntom May 20 2014 at 10:54 AM

Sadly it is rare when someone posts useful information. Thanks for adding to our understanding!

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pameryntom pameryntom May 20 2014 at 10:57 AM

Sorry porschedoc, my 1st response was miss place and not in respose to your question. 911 can narrow your location down but not your specific location. They triangulate by the signal strength of 3 local towers. This gives them a smallish area to find you. about the size of half a NY City block. and even with landlines it is a good habit to give the location of the problem. It may not be at the same location as the landline

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turboheart6 May 20 2014 at 10:41 AM

You hear a frightening noise on the other end of your place and then you hear voices. You realized that there a couple of guys that have broken into your place. Being vocal at a time like that would be the last thing I would like to do.

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Allan Freedman May 20 2014 at 9:01 AM

Calling 9-1-1 is a clever, innovative way to reach emergency help, but like anything else in the technology world, it can fail. When it does, people tend to panic. they call 9-1-1 over and over in an attempt to "connect".

A recent news story told of a woman who thought she had intruders in her home late one night. She repeatedly called 9-1-1 some 37 times! Apparently the 9-1-1 service had an equipment failure and calls were not making it through.

In the time that woman called 9-1-1 over 37 times, she could have called the local city/town police department directly, if only she had the phone number handy. Back in the "old day" before 9-1-1, our home, like many others, kept the local police and fire department number on a small chalk board or small directory next to the phone on the wall. If an emergency arose, we didn't hesitate to call those numbers. Fast response ensued. Maybe relying on 9-1-1 technology ISN'T always the best bet!

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1 reply
irishlaw418 Allan Freedman May 20 2014 at 10:42 AM

If she had time to make 37 calls to 911, then I am guessing whatever the problem was, wasnt too serious. A lot can happen in the time it takes to dial 911 37 times. It is very easy to blame the "system" but the "system" is also very overwhelmed with bull crap calls or hang ups, you name it, they get it. So a failure here and there, as inexcusable as it may be, will happen. Sucks, but nothing is perfect or without flaws.

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Yo! Hammer! May 20 2014 at 2:41 PM

great idea...many victims of residential robbery/burglary can use this when hiding from perpetrators and voice 911 would reveal their hiding place

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candoauto1 May 20 2014 at 6:07 PM

My son is 14, and about a year ago he had an incident. He is at the age where he is exploring his sexuality. He is very secretive about it. Last year he locked himself in the bathroom with a large, full size dill pickle. He somehow was exploring anal, and with a large amount of lubricant, he managed to have the whole pickle go up his anus and get lodged in there. You could not even see the tip of it anymore. We had to call 911, as this may seem funny, but was actually very serious. I was trying to come up with a way to assist, and realize it would have been much easier to just text the situation to 911. It was a pain trying to call. I am thinking it would be nice if you could facebook 911 in the near future. That way I could have posted this to facebook and got a response from 911. I hope they come out with that next.

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1 reply
jojo32148 candoauto1 May 21 2014 at 10:59 AM

I see you son was definitely "in a pickle"...or the other way around

Obviously, you are a moronic comedian...touche

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myallyjohn May 21 2014 at 12:14 AM

could have used it last week when couldn't get a call to connect but got a text out to someone who could...

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