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Text-to-911: Call when you can, text when you must

A handful of jurisdictions around the country have the ability to receive SMS text messages sent to their 911 Public Safety Answering Points and the service is expected to become more common over the next year.

More info

Next steps in making text-to-911 a reality

"Major wireless carriers already have committed to delivering text messages to 911 by May 2014, and the FCC is considering rules to expand the requirement to all carriers and third-party providers. Read more.

When NextGen 911 services show up, cloud-based call centers will be ready

Durham, N.C., is one a handful of jurisdictions that have moved 911 call centers to the cloud, preparing to implement a full range of IP-based services as they become available. Read more.

But the Federal Communications Commission, public safety agencies and wireless carriers warn that text-to-911 is a complement to and not a substitute for voice calls. “Talk to us when you can, text us when you can’t,” said James Soukup, emergency communications director in Durham, N.C., one of the first cities to adopt the technology.

Texting to 911 has its place, particularly for the hearing and speech impaired. It also can be helpful in situations where making a voice call could be dangerous. And during disasters, when phone systems can be damaged and overloaded, a text message might be more likely to go through than a cell phone call.

But texting also has its limitations: It is slower than voice calls, particularly when the 911 operator has to ask questions to get additional information, message length is limited, and because messages are routed separately from wireless voice messages, the degree of accuracy for geographical location is not as high. Location accuracy now is “coarse,” and likely to be limited to identifying the location of the cell where the message originates, according to Verizon Wireless. And text-to-911 might not be available while roaming outside of your carrier’s home network.

Verizon Wireless, one of the first carriers to offer text-to-911 in select locations, offers the following caveats for using text in an emergency:

  • Use texting only when making a voice call to 911 is not an option.
  • Using a phone to call 911 is still the most efficient way to reach emergency help. Texting is not always instantaneous and it probably will take longer to dispatch emergency services.
  • Providing location information and nature of the emergency in the first text message is imperative, since the answering point will receive only an approximate location of the cell phone.
  • Text abbreviations or slang should never be used so that the meaning of the message can be as clear as possible.
  • Customers must be in range of their carrier’s cell towers, as text-to-911 might not be available while roaming.
  • Texts sent to 911 have the same 160-character limit as other text messages.
  • Verizon Wireless customers who use Usage Controls should remove this feature to ensure full text-to-911 capability.
  • Text-to-911 might not be available immediately with all wireless carriers, and not all PSAPs will be able to receive the texts.
  • Texting should be used only for emergency situations requiring an immediate response.
  • Text-to-911 does not support pictures, video or other attachments.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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