Beginning May 15, wireless carriers in the US will uniformly and voluntarily support Text-to-911, a program that lets you send text messages to emergency services as an alternative to placing a phone call.
While carriers will climb on board, this just means they’re making the service available — the ability to text the police in an emergency situation won’t work everywhere in the country the second May 15 rolls around. On the flipside, some counties have already embraced the program, usually working with a single carrier. Here are some important things to know about texting 911.
What is Text-to-911 and how does it work? Text-to-911 is a free program for sending a text message addressed to “911” instead of placing a phone call. To use it, you address the message to 911 and enter the emergency in the body of the text, making sure that you also add your exact location — or else emergency services won’t be able to dispatch help your way.
Since it’s all SMS-based, you will hear a response for more follow-up questions, or when help is on the way.
Who is Text-to-911 for? Text-to-911 is useful for any situation in which it is dangerous or impossible to speak. Texting is also a useful way to help the younger demographic that feels more comfortable texting than calling.
Kent Hellebust, a vice president at TCS, a company that sells texting management software to emergency call centers, told CNET of an incident in which a ten-year-old girl was able to successfully get help by texting 911 — apparently composing a text felt more automatic and natural than dialing in.
Which carriers support it? By May 15, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint will support texting 911. Other carriers could also join in the future.
Will it work where I live? Although the carriers have committed to supporting 911 texting in their service areas, that doesn’t mean that text-to-911 will be available everywhere. Emergency call centers, called PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points), are the bodies in charge of implementing text messaging in their areas. These PSAPs are under the jurisdiction of their local states and counties, not the FCC, which governs the carriers.
In other words, it’s up to the call centers to receive and dispatch your texts. Until the PSAP in your county first requests Text-to-911 support, implements the technology, and trains its staff, you won’t be able to use texting in an emergency. However, some individual emergency services centers are ahead of the curve and already work with carriers to accept emergency texts. Read more on CNET.