How to Text 911 in an Emergency

How to Text 911 in an Emergency

Text to 911

Updated September 16, 2020

Can you text 911? The answer is: yes. You don’t have to call during an emergency but can text 911 instead. Police services across the United States began implementing a program in 2014 that makes it possible for you to text 911 in many areas, since then, over 1,000 911 call centers have integrated this ability. Even though it’s best to call 911, especially because texting 911 is limited to specifics states, if texting is your only option then text-to-911 could be a lifesaver. Literally. Here’s everything you need to know about how to text 911 so you can be prepared in a worst case scenario.

How to text 911

Chances are you probably text every day and are familiar with how to send a text. Using the text-to-911 feature is no different than texting any other number. Still not sure how to text 911? Here are step-by-step instructions:

Step 1

Enter 911 in the number field of the messages section of your phone.

Step 2

Compose a 911 text indicating the nature of the emergency you are experiencing. Be sure to include the following if you have time:

  • What the emergency is: Include information about anyone who is hurt, if there are weapons, or if there is an active scene such as a fire. Including as much information as you can in the first message will save time, prevent your phone screen from continuing to light up if you are hiding and potentially save your phone’s battery.
  • Where you are located: If you know the address, type that, but also include any nearby landmarks. Don’t assume the 911 operator will immediately be able to trace your location from your cellphone. Not every 911 responder has the equipment to do this. How does 911 know where you are? Often, it’s because you tell them, so make sure you provide detail about your specific location.
  • What type of emergency response you need: Example, fire trucks, ambulance or police.

Something important to remember: What happens when you text 911 is that the operator who receives your text will commonly reply to your initial text message asking you to call if possible. If you are unable to call for safety reasons, include this in your first message so you can reduce the amount of back and forth with you and the operator.

Step 3

Send your message. As a follow up, once you have started a text conversation with the 911 operator, you can ask additional questions such as how to immediately help any victims in front of you if there is first aid you can begin to administer.

What happens when you text 911?

When you text 911, if text-to-911 is enabled in your area, you’ll automatically start a conversation over text with a 911 operator.

Advantages of texting 911

Since it became possible to text 911, emergency responders have noted several benefits of this way of communicating. Here are the pros of texting 911:

  • If you can’t talk: If you are fearing for your life or physical safety and don’t want to let an abuser or intruder know you’re contacting 911, texting 911 is obviously preferable to calling 911.
  • Open pathways: During a weather emergency there are occasionally times when phone lines are jammed, in many of these instances SMS messages are still delivered. In these cases, texting 911 could be your best chance at getting through to an operator.
  • Remote areas: If you are in a remote area with poor service and can’t complete a call or stay connected long enough to explain your emergency, texting could help you get all of your information across in a more timely matter.
  • Deaf or hard of hearing: People commonly wonder how deaf people call 911. The FCC recommends that the deaf or hard of hearing use a TTY when possible, but texting 911 could be a benefit if it’s available in your area and this is what you’d prefer.

Disadvantages of texting 911

Can I text 911? Yes. Should I text 911? The answer is — if that’s your only option. Because there can be significant drawbacks to texting 911, it is recommended that you use it as a last resort, if calling is not possible. Here are some cons to texting 911:

  • Not supported by all phones: Remember, you can only use text-to-911 on a texting platform that supports SMS messaging to and from U.S. numbers. If you’re using an app that allows for messaging between users of the same app, but not to external users (Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp are some examples), then it is not possible to text 911 from those apps.
  • Limited resources at call centers. One of the problems with facilitating text-to-911 is that there may not be the right human resources in place at all the call centers to handle your emergency through text. Since this is a newer program and not as widely used as calling 911 it hasn’t been fully adopted by all 911 call centers.
  • Challenges communicating: You’ve probably be tripped up by autocorrect enough times to know that it can be challenging to try to describe anything over text message. These challenges could be even more pronounced in an emergency situation when you’re trying to move fast and might not be thinking totally straight. It could be faster and easier to talk to someone over the phone than try to type out a text message.
  • Not available in every state: There are still many areas that don’t offer text-to-911. What states can you text 911 in? Check out how to find the full list below.

Areas where text to 911 is available

The FCC states that all wireless carriers must deliver text-to-911 messages to emergency call centers that request them. Each call center has their own discretion when it comes to implementing a plan to accept text-to-911 messages. To find out if call centers in your area accept text-to-911 messages you can download the FCC registry, which is updated monthly. The file is an Excel spreadsheet, but will also open on Pages if you use a Mac. There are hundreds of entries and you can search your jurisdiction to find out where you can text 911.

If you’re trying to figure out what states you can text 911 in, it might be easier to look at the opposite — what states you can’t text 911 in. As of May 29, 2020, here are the states that are currently not listed in the FCC registry of areas where you can text 911 from:

  • Alaska
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota

Since each state has multiple jurisdictions, it’s important to check the updated Excel sheet personally to confirm if texting 911 is possible in your specific area.

What happens when you text 911 in an unsupported area?

If your area does not support texting 911, a bounce back message is immediate sent to you informing you that the message sending has failed. Carriers are required by the FCC to send you this message if you can’t text 911 in your area. The goal is that these messages will reduce the risk of you believing your text has gone through to 911 when it was in fact undelivered. If you get a bounce back message, you need to call 911 rather than use SMS to text 911.

Even if your area does support text-to-911, calling 911 is still the most reliable way to get through.

Is texting 911 the same as emergency text alerts?

Many municipalities, states and even organizations such as churches offer emergency text alerts — a practice that has grown more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic (you can view a list of coronavirus emergency alerts if you’d like to start receiving some in your area). Emergency alerts are when an organization sends you updates relevant to your personal safety, such as weather updates or social distancing guidelines. Typically you can not reply to these messages and they are not the same as texting 911.

Should I text a photo or video of my emergency?

Currently you are only able to use SMS to contact 911, so that means you can’t and shouldn’t send a photo or video of your emergency. When you send a photo or video, this is technically an MMS. You can read up on the difference between SMS vs MMS if you  need more clarity.

What’s the best way to contact 911?

The FCC emphasizes that even though text-to-landline does work to contact 911 call centers, it’s much more effective to dial 911 and speak to an operator directly. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, the FCC recommends that you use a TTY if possible when text-to-911 is not available

How does text-to-landline work?

You might think it’s weird to be able to text a landline, but it’s actually a very common way many people reach out to businesses and government services. In fact, if you own a business and don’t have text-to-landline enabled you could be missing out on valuable customers who are texting you and getting no response. When you enable any number, even 911, with text-to-landline, you can set it up to allow for mass text messaging or two-way messaging from that number. This can be enabled for new numbers and toll free lines or existing numbers.

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