WSBT

Text To 911 Goes Live, With A Few Limitations

The four major network carriers have gone live with support for the text-to-911 service, but many call centers aren't equipped to receive the texts.

By Laura Heck | May 15, 2014

Here's good news: people can now text 911 in an emergency instead of having to call. Definitely helpful, but there are still frustrating limitations to the service. 

The four major wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — have all gone live with support for national text-to-911 programs as of Thursday. 

The service is meant for instances when people are hearing or speech impaired, if there is not enough signal to connect a phone call, or when calling could be dangerous, such as in a domestic abuse or kidnapping situation. (Via Wikimedia Commons / Jason Bain)

"Being able to do the text instead of make the phone call could be a way to reach out for help without escalating the violence of the situation."  (Via KSHB)

But just because the networks support the service it doesn't mean the call centers themselves can receive those text messages. As of now, only select counties in 16 states are able to. (Via WSBT)

Check the Federal Communications Commission website to see if your county is equipped for emergency response to texts. If your call center can't receive texts, your phone will show a bounce-back message instructing you to call instead.

As Government Technology reports, the FCC is urging more states and counties to accommodate the service, but it will be a long time before the 6,000 call centers across the country can adapt.

Emergency officials can receive basic geolocation information from text messages, but its not quite enough. WISH spoke to the communication director for Tipton County in Indiana, which has implemented the texting service. 

CHRIS BELL: "Once you ask for that help, our next question is immediately going to be, 'What is your location?' Because we need to know your location so we can get you help. That's probably the most important part of that text."

It's that kind of information stop-gap with texting that has officials saying its still best to call if you can, TechCrunch reports. Emergency dispatchers can often get important information just from listening to a phone call. CNET interviewed a dispatch supervisor on the topic:

​KELLY MURCH: "We'll get it to the officers that are out there and say, 'This person is a crying, screaming citizen. We're not able to get much because they're under a lot of stress. We have a location, this is what's going on that we can hear in the background.'"

What's more, the text-to-911 service could take much longer than dialing for a few reasons. For one thing, it takes longer to type and send texts than speak across a phone line.

And there's another factor. 911 calls are currently given priority in networks, and 911 texts will be treated as any other message, meaning it could take much longer to reach the dispatch center. 

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