The emergency call system for the United States, 911, is working with cellphone companies to implement the ability to text “911” in the event of an emergency. Being able to text 911 when calling is an option that could save lives — if it works.
All major cellphone companies provide the capability to text 911, which is a start. But, as of right now, only certain — and very few — public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in the United States can receive emergency texts. You can check out where the service is available here.
In order for this to be a truly safe and useful addition to emergency services, PSAPs need to make the service available. The Federal Communications Commission has encouraged 911 call centers to begin accepting texts as the capability develops, but it is up to each call center to make the decision.
For now, if you need emergency help, call 911. The text-to-911 service is not available anywhere in Missouri, so in the event that you or somebody else is injured in St. Louis, Missouri, be ready to make the call.
So, what happens when you text 911 from an area that doesn’t provide the service?
For now, safety measures have been put in place by the FCC to make sure people attempting to text 911 in an area where it isn’t available aren’t put in danger.
Cellphone providers are required to send automatic bounce-back messages to anyone who tries to text 911 in a county where the service isn’t yet available. This bounce-back message advises the person to contact emergency services via voice call.
But, even with this safety measure in place, it is important to know ahead of time that texting 911 is not yet a reliable way to get help in an emergency. If possible, you should make a direct call to 911.
It may be a good idea to sit down and talk with your family about this new development. If you have teenagers you probably know how much they use their cellphone to text, and they may have gotten wind of the ability to text 911. Passing on a warning to them, and others you know, about the service still being considerably unreliable could save a life.
If and when this service becomes widely available it could be extremely useful in some dangerous scenarios. For example, in a domestic attacker or hostage situation the victim may not be able to speak safely to 911 over the phone, but a text could go unnoticed by the perpetrator.
Even though a text would be helpful in a situation like the one above, there are limits to texting in an emergency. Unlike when you call 911, sending a text message will not automatically let the call taker receive information such as your location — you’ll have to manually enter this yourself, and as quickly as possible.
If you have any more questions or concerns about text-to-911, the FCC has provided a quick facts & FAQs page.