What You Need to Know About Text-to-911


To much fanfare, the Federal Communications Commission announced that nationwide text-to-911 service has hit the market in the spring of 2014. But the devil's in the details. You might not have access to the emergency service, even if you have a cell phone carrier who appears to support it.

Texting for emergencies? Yes, but ....
(Cult of Android)

If you're trapped in an emergency where you can't speak, you can send a text message to 911 and a dispatcher will reply with in kind by text -- if (and this is a big if!) both your carrier and your community support the technology. Note, though, that 911 texts don't get priority over other text traffic.

Need help? 911 is just a text away.
CNet: Text-to-911: What You Need to Know (FAQ)

The four major cell carriers in the United States -- Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint -- support text-to-911 service right now. By agreement with the FCC, the carriers began providing the service within their coverage areas on May 15, 2014.

The FCC brokered an agreement among the major cell carriers.
Federal Communications Commission
Federal Communications Commission: Text-to-911

The Big Four cell providers support the service, but each individual 911 call center determines if and when it will accept text messages. There's no national deployment plan; each community sets its own standards and timetables, so coverage across the country will be spotty for years to come.

Early trials focused on just a few communities.
Federal Communications Commission
Forbes: Years Away From Text Messages To 911

In an emergency situation, texting might not be the best way of summoning help if you have reasonable alternatives, like placing a call to 911. Dispatchers rely on cues like tone of voice and speech coherence to gauge the severity of the emergency. Plus, a dispatcher can ask follow-up questions that, if texted, add seconds or minutes to the process -- time you might not be able to sacrifice.

Vocal cords provide more info for dispatchers than your fingers do.
TechCrunch: U.S.’ Text-To-911 Service Goes Live, But You Probably Can’t Use It Yet

Early rollouts are still very limited; only a handful of jurisdictions nationwide have activated text-to-911 service. The FCC maintains a list of active communities, but as of May 2014, you have better odds of actually needing 911 than of living in a place that's already deployed the system.

The list of early adopters is regrettably short.
Federal Communications Commission
Federal Communications Commission: Text-to-911 Deployments

The text-to-911 program relies on the Short Messaging Service (SMS) protocol. That means you get plain text only -- no videos, no pictures, no sound clips. And no emoji, either.

Emoticons? Txtspk? Not a good idea.
Jason Gillikin
GCN: Text-to-911: Call When You Can, Text When You Must

On the bright side, if you need emergency assistance in an area that doesn't support text-to-911 capabilities, your carrier (if it supports the service) will reply with a bounce-back message telling you to get help the old-fashioned way -- by voice.

Bounce-back messages let you know if you're not in a service area.
Gaston Gazette
PC Magazine: Text-to-911 Goes Live: Will Your Text Go Through?

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