U.S.’ Text-To-911 Service Goes Live, But You Probably Can’t Use It Yet

Starting today, all four major U.S. carriers, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, have begun to offer text-to-911 in select markets. The new service, as the name implies, allows you to reach emergency call takers through text messaging. However, there are a few caveats about this service’s usage, the most important being that the new option has yet to go live across all states and counties in the U.S. Meanwhile, the way these texts are handled on the backend will vary from region to region.

Because of the service’s still limited availability on its go-live date, the FCC advises that, for now, you should “not rely on text to reach 911” and reminds visitors to its informational page about the new service that “in most cases, you cannot reach 911 by sending a text message.”

Those who attempt texting 911 in areas where the service has yet to go live will receive a bounceback message informing them of that fact – a system the four major carriers actually implemented in June 2013, ahead of the FCC’s September deadline.

Caveats aside, as of today, May 15th 2014, the four carriers have voluntarily committed to switching on the text-to-911 service in areas where call centers are able to receive these types of calls, which is a significant milestone towards a more universal text-to-911 system.

However, a full rollout across the U.S. could still take years.

Limited Availability

A fact sheet (PDF) provided here by the Federal Communications Commission offers a detailed breakdown as to where the service is available at present, as well as what platform is used to receive and process the incoming texts.

Select counties in the following states now have the text-to-911 option, the document states, including Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia.

(If your state is listed, you should still check the doc to see if your particular county is covered before using this option.) 

Some call centers are taking these “calls” by way of their TTY systems, which are designed to help the hearing impaired communicate by phone. However, others have upgraded to newer, browser-based technology.

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

Even though the world now seems to prefer texting over phone calls when in comes to communications, there are a number of reasons why a basic text message should not be used as the primary way to contact emergency services, if at all avoidable. For starters, you have to remember to type in your full address along with your emergency before hitting send, and you can’t share photos or videos.

If you can speak, details about the emergency may be easier to share over the phone.

In addition, emergency responders often have to ask for more information while on the phone with a caller, not only about the location (like the cross-streets or neighborhood, for example), but they also learn more about the type of scene by listening to the noises and voices in the background.

For instance, they listen to what others nearby are shouting, if they hear a commotion – that sort of thing. Even the disposition of the caller is something they take into account when sharing the info with police or other responders – e.g., the person sounds “panicked,” or “calm,” or “nonsensical,” or is slurring their speech, etc., all of which can point to things like a person’s mental states or possible medical condition.

That being said, a text-to-911 system, when more broadly available, will be useful in cases where a caller can’t speak or hear, or is otherwise unable to place a voice call – for example, like when placing a phone call could put them in further danger.

You can learn more about the text-to-911 service here.

Image credit: afagen