Stay up to date

911 First response 101

Texting Vs. calling 9-1-1: Knowing when, or if, to text in an emergency

On August 18, 2022

Cell phones have been a part of our lives for more than 30 years now, and with the ability to text for  more than 20. Yet, as of 2018, less than half of our more than 6,000 emergency call centers are capable of receiving and responding to text messages. While texting 9-1-1 isn't necessarily recommended, it can absolutely be useful in certain situations. This article will detail the benefits and challenges that come with texting 9-1-1, and how you can find out if your community supports it.


Calling 9-1-1 Is still best

If you are at all able to, calling 9-1-1 is still the most reliable and preferred method of contact in case of an emergency. Landline and cell phone calls have the advantage of location-targeting capabilities and are simply a more effective way to gather imperative information quickly. Telecommunicators are trained to extract necessary details so they can send the proper resources to aid in the emergency as fast as possible.


Texting 9-1-1 disadvantages

Depending on the area, the signal might not be very good, which could cause delays in sending a message – or cause it to completely fail. With that, depending on the level of technology the dispatch center has, if the text goes through a reply may not come immediately – leaving the texter unaware if the message was delivered or not.


The challenges to implementing changes and upgrades can be daunting, with one of the biggest challenges being funding. New equipment or systems, training personnel, and coordination between stakeholders is no small feat and are expenditures that decision makers need to take into consideration. While county, state, and federal funds can supplement local agency and/or county budgets, costs of new technologies and system upgrades are often beyond what is possible for smaller agencies to afford.


When calling 9-1-1 in case of an emergency, telecommunicators are not only able to get information quickly, but they are also able to pick up on the tone of the caller's voice and any background noise – which is more information the telecommunicator can use when sending help.


Texting 9-1-1

However, it can't be ignored that there are situations where texting 9-1-1 is advantageous. For those with a disability impacting speech or hearing, or if there is a situation that it's not safe to speak and risk being overheard – an intruder in the home, kidnapping or hostage situations, or domestic violence – texting 9-1-1 can be the only option. 


It's always beneficial to be prepared for an emergency, and as technology updates we need to continually update ourselves, too. Be sure to check if the emergency communications center in your area supports texting 9-1-1 by either downloading the FCC’s list of areas supporting available service (updated monthly), finding the information on your local city’s website, or calling your local police department's non-emergency line to ask.


With texting 9-1-1 becoming more available, it's important to be aware of what you can expect when texting 9-1-1. If your community supports emergency texting and you're connected with a telecommunicator, they will ask if they can call you. If you are able to speak, it's recommended you call immediately. If you can't, be sure to be as clear as possible by refraining from shorthand. This will ensure a smoother conversation, allowing for a quick emergency response.


If you find yourself in a situation where you're unsure if texting is available but it's unfortunately a necessity, please know you should get a bounce back message informing you to call 9-1-1 if texting is not an available service.


With the hope that you never have to experience an emergency, it's good to be prepared if one were to ever occur. For more information on contacting 9-1-1, check out our articles on educating children on calling 9-1-1 and what a telecommunicator wants you to know



Submit a Comment

Articles by public safety experts delivered straight to your inbox. Stay up to date.