In an emergency, is texting 911 better than calling?

More police departments are exploring technology that would allow 911 emergency dispatchers to receive text messages from people who need help.

Tamara Lush/AP/File
In this June 12, 2016 file photo, Mina Justice speaks to a reporter discussing texting with her son, Eddie Justice, who was in a bathroom during the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, in Orlando. More police departments are exploring technology that would allow 911 emergency dispatchers to receive text messages from people who need help.

The vast majority of American cities don’t allow residents to text 911, but police departments across the country are seeking ways to introduce that feature amid a growing recognition that certain emergencies don’t allow for a phone call.

During the attack on Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, patrons texted relatives asking them to call 911 – knowing that placing the call themselves could alert the attacker to where they were hiding.

In addition to callers who fear the emergency would worsen if they make noise, texting could also help the hearing-impaired and those with a speech disabilities to alert 911 by sending dispatchers texts, photos, and videos.

Out of more than 6,000 dispatch centers nationwide, only a little over 650 can accept text messages, with more than 150 making the text-to-911 upgrade this year, the Federal Communications Commission said, according to the Associated Press.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY-D) has urged the Federal Communications Commission to “lead the charge” to update call center technology more rapidly, taking lessons from the experience in Orlando.

“Whether it's a person hiding in a closet during a burglary, or a person with a disability or someone in the midst of something far more sinister, like a mass shooting, a single text could be a godsend that gives law enforcement the upper hand,” Sen. Schumer said, according to NY Daily News.

In the cities and counties where the technology has been implemented, members of the deaf/hearing-impaired community have spoken out about the benefits. A deaf man in Rochester Hills in Oakland County, Mich., said that the texting system saved his house from burning down. He was able to alert the fire department immediately when his oven caught fire. The Oakland County Dispatch Center that responded to his message implemented 911 text messaging a little over a year ago and averages about 12 emergency text messages a day.

Texting isn't intended to replace calling as a preferred method for contacting 911, since calling provides dispatchers with more information immediately. "Call if you can, text if you can't" is the slogan repeated by 911 communications teams in many of the counties that are introducing the feature to residents.

“Even where text-to-911 is available, if you are able to make a voice call to 911, and if it is safe to do so, you should always make a voice call to 911 instead,” the Federal Communication Commission said, as Karis Hustad reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2014. “Voice calls allow the 911 operator to more quickly ask questions and obtain information from the caller, while two-way communication by text can take more time and is subject to limits on the length of text messages.”

While a 911 responder immediately gets your location when you place a call, the same is not true for texting, so texters have to clearly indicate their address. Phone calls also offer additional information texts do not, including background noises and the tone and urgency in a caller’s voice.

There are also other considerations to using text messaging for emergencies. As the texting 911 feature becomes more common, areas that don’t have 911 texting abilities will have to be able to ping back those who try to text them to let them know that their messages didn’t go through, 911 Director Ernst Cook told the Associated Press. Otherwise people may erroneously believe they have alerted 911 when they have not.

Another disadvantage to texting is that while even cell phones without wireless plans can often call 911, texting 911 won’t work without a cell phone plan. 

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