Text to 911: What You Need to Know

Up until just recently, those in danger had to dial and call 911 in order to report an emergency, but users can text it now, thanks to all of the major carriers who have launched support for it, as well as a handful of 911 call centers across the US.

If you’re unable to call 911 in an emergency situation, like if you’re deaf or you’re afraid speaking would put you in danger (like a perpetrator is within earshot), you can now text 911 instead of just call. However, it doesn’t work in all cities and only a handful of 911 call centers support it right now, so if you send a text message to 911, you’ll simply get an automated bounce-back message saying that it didn’t work and that you should call 911 instead.

Using Text to 911 is fairly easy and straightforward. All you have to do is simply text 911 with your emergency and your location. However, you’ll have to type in your physical address since 911 call centers won’t be able to triangulate your location with a text message, unlike a call would. However, we wouldn’t be surprised if the capability to locate where a text message came from became available.

The FCC makes it very clear that Text to 911 is only available in a few markets, so it still advises you to contact 911 by calling rather than texting, at least until the texting features becomes more widespread. You can view a list of areas that Text to 911 is available in, but spoiler alert: it’s very limited so far.

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Only select counties in a handful of states support the new system, including Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. Even if your state is listed, be sure to look at the availability list first to see if your county has Text to 911 capabilities.

It’s also important to note that many of the counties only support one carrier, so if your county is listed, it might only support texting from Verizon phones, for instance, while other counties only support AT&T. However, support for all four major carriers at once will happen in the near future.

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The system works by receiving text messages as a “call,” and then the 911 dispatcher answers the call, but instead of hearing and talking to the person on the other end, the text message gets displayed on the dispatcher’s computer display. From there, the dispatcher can send replies back. It’s certainly a must slower process than calling 911, but it’s better than nothing for those who aren’t able to call.

However, even if Text to 911 is available in your area, it might not be the best option in the first place, since you have to include your full name, address, and a description what’s happening, which take a lot longer than if you just called 911, depending on how fast your fingers can type. Of course, it’s a welcomed system for those who are deaf or have speech impairments, but it may not be the quickest way to get a hold of 911 in an emergency.

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Plus, texting puts a big barrier between you and the 911 dispatcher, since a big part of a typical 911 call is that they can ask you questions that can sometimes make or break an emergency, and the background noise during a call can also help dispatchers get a better idea of what’s going on.

The FCC says that Text to 911 will be “widely available in the United States” at some point in the future, with no specific timeline given, although it said that it has “proposed rules that would require all covered text providers to support text-to-911 by December 31, 2014.”

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While the four major carriers now support Text to 911 (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile), it’s ultimately up to the 911 call centers  exactly when they’ll support it. Some call centers have obviously started to accept 911 text messages already, while others will add support later on. Complete widespread coverage of the system could take several years, but we’ll ultimately have to wait and see.

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