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Can You Text 911? Here’s What You Should Know

Feb 26, 2024

Have you ever wondered what you’d do in an emergency where speaking aloud with a 911 operator wasn’t a viable option? 

Text-to-911 is an emergency service that allows individuals to reach out for help via text message, offering an alternative to calling 911. It’s a lifeline for those who are deaf, hard of hearing or facing circumstances where speaking aloud is unsafe or impossible. 

While it’s recommended to call 911 if possible, here’s how (and where) you can text 911 so you can be prepared no matter the circumstance. 

Table of Contents 

Can You Text 911?

Yes, in many locations, you can text 911 for emergency assistance. However, authorities are not currently required to support text-to-911 services, so it’s up to the discretion of individual call centers to decide whether to implement and deploy text-to-911 technology. 

If text-to-911 is available in your area, it’s essential to know when you should (and shouldn’t) send a text instead of making a phone call. Below are some advantages and disadvantages of text-to-911 to consider if you are in an emergency.

Advantages of Texting 911 (and When to Use It)

It is recommended to call 911 whenever possible, as it allows for a quicker, more effective exchange of information. However, there are many circumstances where texting 911 is appropriate. Here are some advantages to text-to-911:

  • Accessibility and discretion. For those with hearing or speech impairments, text-to-911 offers a clearer, easier solution for communicating with first responders during emergencies. It also allows individuals to discreetly contact 911 in situations where speaking aloud may escalate the problem or cause further risk. 
  • Effective in noisy, chaotic environments. Texting allows critical information like location, description of the issue and important details to be communicated clearly in loud situations. 
  • Reliability. In remote locations, areas with limited cell service or situations where phone lines are jammed, texting may be more reliable than making a phone call. 

That said, here are some examples of situations where text-to-911 is appropriate:

  • In situations where speech-impaired or hard-of-hearing individuals are unable to make a voice call
  • When making a voice call could endanger your safety – such as during a home invasion, an active shooter incident, abduction, kidnapping or human trafficking 
  • Medical emergencies where the person cannot speak or hear due to the nature of their condition 
  • In situations with poor cell reception, making a voice call impossible
  • Situations where speaking on the phone could escalate the situation, like those involving domestic violence or abuse.
  • When making a voice call could draw unwanted attention, such as when witnessing a crime or suspicious activity
  • Instances of severe social anxiety or other psychological conditions that make speaking on the phone difficult 

Limitations of Texting 911

While many circumstances may require using text-to-911, there are some limitations: 

  • Limited location accuracy. Unlike voice calls, text messages do not provide automatic location information. In emergencies, accurate location data is crucial for responders to provide timely assistance. Text-to-911 relies on the user to provide their location, which may not always be possible or accurate, especially in moments of distress or when the individual is in an unfamiliar area. 
  • Delayed response times. Text messages may not receive an immediate response from emergency dispatch centers. Text-to-911 services are typically staffed by operators who prioritize voice calls, which may result in delayed response times for text messages. 
  • Limited communication capabilities. Text messages lack real-time interaction and detailed information that can be conveyed through voice calls. Clarifying crucial details, assessing the severity of the situation or providing instructions may be challenging over text.
  • Dependence on cellular network availability. Text-to-911 relies on the availability of a functioning cellular network, which may be unavailable in areas with poor signal coverage or during network outages. You must also have a text or data plan to reach 911 via SMS. 
  • Language barriers and limited accessibility. Text-to-911 may face challenges in handling different languages, dialects or abbreviations used in text messages. And while text-to-911 benefits individuals with hearing or speech impairments, it may not be accessible to those with visual impairments.
  • Not supported by all texting platforms. You must use a texting platform that supports texting to and from U.S. numbers. Apps that do not allow cross-platform communication – like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – do not support text-to-911. 
  • Photos and videos are not supported. While this is possible in some counties, most counties and states do not accept this feature. 

How to Text 911

Here’s how you can text 911, as well as some essential details to keep in mind before you press send:

Step 1: Verify that you can text 911 in your area

It’s important to know whether or not text-to-911 is available in your area before you’re in a situation where you need to contact 911. For updated information regarding whether or not the county you reside in accepts text-to-911, take a look at your county’s website. 

Step 2: Write your 911 text

Be as clear as possible when writing a text to 911. Here’s what you should include in your text:

  • State your location. Because text messages do not automatically provide your location to the operator, you’ll need to state your location or address in your text. If you’re unsure of your exact location, describe the surrounding area as thoroughly as possible. 
  • Outline essential information. Clearly describe the nature of the emergency, the type of assistance required and any relevant details such as injuries, the number of people involved or hazards present. 
  • Use clear language. Be concise, use plain language in your text message, and avoid abbreviations, emojis or slang. 

Step 3: Send your message

Once you’ve written your text message, enter “911” in the recipient field and press send. Rest assured that your message has been received, and the operator is working quickly to respond and provide proper assistance. 

Emergency operators may need additional information to assess the situation or provide instructions, so keep your phone close and be ready to answer follow-up questions. 

Note that text-to-911 should only be used for true emergencies. You should avoid sending non-emergency messages or testing the service. 

What Happens When You Send a 911 Text?

When you send a text to 911, communication with emergency services will be initiated as soon as the text is sent successfully. Although text-to-911 services differ slightly by county and state, here’s what you can most likely expect:

  1. A confirmation message. In areas where text-to-911 is supported, you’ll usually receive an automated reply acknowledging that your message has been received. This message may provide instructions or outline the limitations of texting 911. 
  2. Interaction with a dispatcher. Your text will be routed to a 911 dispatcher, who will gather more information about the emergency as needed. 
  3. Response and assistance. Based on the information you’ve provided, emergency responders will be dispatched to your location to address the situation described in the text message. The dispatcher may also provide instructions or guidance to assist you until help arrives. 

Where is Text-to-911 Available?

Text-to-911 is still being implemented. That said, it’s important to know where you can and can’t send a text to 911. Here’s a list of every state and where they’re at in the process of deploying text-to-911 services:

States that Currently Support Text-to-911

A handful of states have successfully implemented text-to-911 services statewide. Here are the states that currently support text-to-911 in every county:

Arizona Maine North Dakota
California Maryland Rhode Island
Connecticut Massachusetts South Dakota
Delaware Minnesota Vermont
Hawaii New Hampshire Washington
Indiana New Jersey  
Iowa North Carolina  

States That are in the Process of Implementing Text-to-911

Most states are in the process of implementing text-to-911, meaning it is available in some counties but not others. Here are the states that are currently in the process of implementing the service: 

Alabama Louisiana Oregon
Alaska Michigan Pennsylvania
Arkansas Mississippi South Carolina
Colorado Missouri Tennessee
Florida Montana Texas
Georgia Nebraska Utah
Idaho Nevada Virginia
Illinois New York West Virginia
Kansas Ohio Wisconsin 
Kentucky Oklahoma Wyoming

States that do not Support Text-to-911

The only state that does not support text-to-911 is New Mexico. However, as text-to-911 becomes more widely accepted, this is subject to change.

What Happens When You Text 911 in an Unsupported Area?

If you text 911 in an unsupported area, you will receive a bounce-back message informing you that your text message has failed. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires carriers to send a bounce-back message in areas where text-to-911 is not supported, so you’ll know if you’ve sent a message that will not result in assistance. If you receive this message, you’ll need to call 911 instead. 

What is the Best Way to Contact 911?

While text-to-911 is an effective way to contact 911 centers, it’s much more effective to dial 911 and speak to an operator directly. In emergencies, every second counts, so it’s best to call 911 so that you can exchange and clarify information as quickly as possible. 

For those who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech disabled, the FCC recommends using a teletypewriter (TTY) or a telecommunications relay service. 

A good rule of thumb is “call when you can, text when you can’t.” In other words, only text 911 if calling is not a viable option. 

Final Thoughts

Text-to-911 services offer an essential communication option for a variety of emergency circumstances. Because its availability varies by state and region, always verify whether it is supported in your area.

Advancements in technology, like text-to-911, continue to shape and improve emergency response systems. Ensuring access to reliable communication options for all individuals is crucial in creating safer communities and providing timely assistance when it matters most. 

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