Caveat texter: Text-to-911 is not a substitute for voice calls

A text message to 911 is still a text message, subject to SMS limitations. In an emergency, it's still better to call.

A text message to 911 is a valuable capability to have in an emergency, but it is still a text message, subject to all of the limitations of texting. Even as states and the telecom industry begin implementing text-to-911 services, voice will remain the preferred medium for emergencies, officials say.

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“Only use text if you can’t call,” said Lynn Questell executive director of the Emergency Communications Board in Tennessee, where the new text service is being enabled.

In Vermont, which enabled text-to-911 with one carrier statewide in 2012 and now is piloting the service with a second, the number of emergency texts received so far has been small.

“It’s a myth that this is going to result in everybody sending text messages rather than calling 911,” said David Tucker, executive director of the state’s Enhanced 911 Board. “That’s not true. Making a voice call is still the best way to contact 911.”

Text-to-911 offers advantages for those with speech and hearing disabilities who are using SMS texting as an alternative to specialized equipment such as Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf. And it could be useful in situations where it might be inconvenient or impractical to make voice calls.

But, as the Federal Communications Commission notes in its recent notice of proposed rulemaking, text-to-911 service “is and will remain a complement to, rather than a substitute for, voice 911 service. The voice 911 system that has been maintained and improved over decades remains the preferred means of seeking help in an emergency in most instances. Therefore, even as we take this first major step in the transition to NG911, we continue to encourage all consumers seeking emergency help to access 911 by voice whenever possible.”

According to Vermont’s Enhanced 911 Board, the limitations of text-to-911 include:

  • Text messaging is a “best efforts” service, with no guarantee that a message will be sent, delivered or received in a timely manner, if at all.
  • Even when the message goes through promptly, texting to 911 can take longer than making a voice call because it has to be typed, as do any responses, using up critical time.
  • To make the message as clear as possible, common text abbreviations and slang (OMG) should not be used in an emergency message, which adds to the length of the message and the time required to type it.
  • In some implementations, those receiving the messages will not have access to automated location information, so accurate location information must be included in the body of the text, as well as specific information on the type of emergency, so that this information can be passed along to local first responders.
  • 911 texts have the same 160-character limit as other text messages, reducing the amount of information that can be sent in one message.
  • Emergency texts can be sent only in areas where the Public Safety Answering Points have the ability to receive them. (To help inform users, major wireless carriers have agreed to begin sending bounce-back error messages next year to senders when a 911 text cannot be delivered to a public service answering point.)
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