Text to 911

“Call if you can – text if you can’t.”
Availability of Text to 911 in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has 69 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). PSAPs are call centers staffed with trained telecommunicators who are responsible for answering emergency requests for police, fire and ambulance services. Of those 69 PSAPs, 67 are counties, and the remaining two are the Cities of Allentown and Bethlehem. Please refer to the map (below) to see how many PSAPs are utilizing Text to 911 services throughout the Commonwealth. Text to 911 has been available in Monroe County since March 2016.

With more than 6 billion texts sent every day since 2012, being able to reach the police by typing rather than talking is a logical next step that could make a huge impact for people seeking help. But that doesn’t mean you can — or even should — start texting your emergency instead of calling.

*Texting 9-1-1 could take longer to report an emergency:

911 centers have to buy or license the right tools to deliver the text-to-911 capability. They must also establish protocols for communicating with texters, and then train their dispatchers. All of this can take time, especially in the face of a few thorns. Depending on the coverage strength in your area, texts could take longer to travel through the network and arrive in front of the right eyes than a 911 call from the same phone; they could also experience substantial delivery delays. On the flip side, texts require lower signal strength and may have an easier time going through.

Lack of Priority: while 911 texts are “free”, they are not prioritized by your carrier over texts with other normal text messages. There’s no guarantee that your emergency text will make it through. If “text-to-911” isn’t available or your signal doesn’t go through you should receive a bounce-back message notifying you of that. Unlike voice calls which route to the 9-1-1 communications center via dedicated telephone “trunk lines” they’re designated for nothing other than routing 9-1-1 voice calls to the dispatch center.

Since texting takes longer than speaking, the substance of the texting conversation will more than likely consume more time than talking, not less. The longer it takes to physically send and receive information, or to decipher texting “slang”, the longer it will take for the dispatchers to send help your way.

Emergency call centers will receive basic geolocation from a texter’s phone, but there’s much more they need to know, like your intersection, details about people and events, and any other dangers at the scene. 911 operators don’t just receive the “caller’s” location and send out help, they walk you through a set list of questions so that the officers responding have the most complete picture possible.

Context of the message is key to help assisting the first responders;

If you’ve ever needed an emoticon to tell you if your buddy is joking on a text or IM, you know that unadorned type can be a terrible way to convey emotion, because it excludes all the social cues bound up in voice communication. The ability to take in the caller’s mental and emotional state over a voice call to 911 shouldn’t be weighed lightly.

From our Training Coordinator:

“You can tell if somebody is under a lot of stress, if they’re experiencing an emotional situation — this is usually not a good time for a caller; they’ve witnessed a crime; they’ve witnessed something happening to them, or they’ve experienced it. You can hear that in a caller’s voice, you can tell which direction you need to take the questions to. In addition to tone of voice, dispatchers also glean information from sounds they hear in the background, for instance gunshots or a scuffle, or maybe the sound of shouting.”

So when do you want to text 911 instead of call?

An excerpt from CNET magazine:

“While we still urge you to call when you can and save texting as a final resort, there are right times to use it.

For instance, texting 911 gives Americans with speech and hearing impairments direct access to a 911 operator. And texting is practically the mother tongue of today’s teens, who might feel more comfortable or more natural drafting an SMS before finding the dial screen.

There are also serious situations in which uttering a word would make the situation even more dangerous. We learned that, in the case of Virginia Tech, a number of the students there were trying to text to 911 or texting to their friends about the situations they were in, simply because they couldn’t talk for fear of their lives,” Brian Fontes, NENA’s CEO, told CNET, adding that the same scenario applies to situations of domestic abuse.

“Text-to-911 will prove to be beneficial for many reasons, including persons with speech or hearing impairments, and the younger generation that is more in-tune to text messaging instead of telephone conversations.”

“Call if you can — text if you can’t” is the slogan developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the new technology makes its debut.

Additional information about Text-to-911 can be found at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website https://www.fcc.gov/guides/text-911-quick-facts-faqs or the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) website https://www.nena.org/?page=textresources.

Below are the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines for how to contact 9-1-1.  If you use a wireless phone or other type of mobile device, make sure to do the following in an emergency:

  • If you can, always contact 9-1-1 by making a voice call, “Call if you can – text if you can’t.”
  • If you are deaf, hard-of-hearing or speech disabled, and Text-to- 9-1-1 is not available, use a TTY or telecommunications relay service, if available.
  • If you text 9-1-1 and text is not available in your area, you will receive a bounce back message advising “text is not available please make a voice call to 9-1-1.”
  • Location accuracy varies by carrier and should not be relied upon. Be prepared to give your location.
  • Text-to-9-1-1 service will not be available if the wireless carrier cannot ascertain a location of the device sending the message.
  • Text-to-9-1-1 is not available if you are “roaming”.
  • A text or data plan is required to place a text to 9-1-1.
  • Photos and videos cannot be sent to 9-1-1. They cannot be received at the 9-1-1 center at this time. This feature should be built into standard systems at a later time.
  • Text messages should be sent in plain language and not contain popular abbreviations (SMH, LOL, ICYMI) or emoji’s, which will not be recognized.
  • Text-to- 9-1-1 cannot be sent to more than one person. Do not send your emergency text to anyone other than 9-1-1.
  • Texts must be in English only. There currently is no language interpretation for text available.  This is still in development.

There are a few important tips to remember when texting to 9-1-1:

  • Provide your LOCATION with every call. PSAPs do NOT automatically know your location when texting to 911.
  • Provide a description of what the emergency is with every call
  • Send brief messages without using abbreviations or slang.
  • Stay with your wireless device and be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions from the 9-1-1 dispatcher.
  • No pictures, no videos and no emoticons are supported by text to 9-1-1
  • Text to 9-1-1 is for emergencies only!
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