Text-to-911 is here, but it isn't everything you might think

In a world where people text more often than call, typing your emergency to 911 is the logical next step. But there are kinks to work out before you'll be able to use it nationwide.

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Jessica Dolcourt
6 min read

Accepting texts to 911 will happen county by county. Josh Miller/CNET

If there's ever a situation where you need to text a 911 operator instead of dialing the number directly, listen up now. Today is the day that the country's four big carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, will officially route texts addressed to 911 to your local police.

This is a good thing -- with more than 6 billion texts sent every day since 2012, being able to reach the police by typing rather than talking is a logical next step that could make a huge impact for people seeking help. But that doesn't mean you can -- or even should -- start texting your emergency instead of calling.

The first -- and most important -- point to understand is that although these four carriers have now enabled Text-to-911 on their end, the have no say over whether your local police station implements it or not. Each emergency call center, or PSAP (public safety answering point), as it's known in the public-safety sphere, has to decide how and when to allow Text-to-911. Some already have, but others may take longer as they tackle a large set of issues that may include their size and financial resources.

Not only do these PSAPs have to buy or license the right tools to carry on conversations over text, they must also establish protocols for communicating with texters, and then train their dispatchers. All of this can take time, especially in the face of a few thorns.

Texting could take longer

Depending on the coverage strength in your area, texts could take longer to travel through the network and arrive in front of the right eyes than a 911 call from the same phone; they could also experience substantial delivery delays. On the flip side, texts require lower signal strength and may have an easier time going through.

Also, while 911 texts are free, they are not prioritized over texts to your friends, so there's no guarantee that your emergency text will make it through (though if it doesn't, you'll receive a bounce-back message to that effect).

Since texting takes longer than speaking, the substance of the texting conversation could likely consume more time than talking, not less. The longer it takes to physically send and receive information, or to decipher slang, the longer it takes to send help your way.

Emergency call centers will receive basic geolocation from a texter's phone, but there's much more they need to know, like your intersection, details about people and events, and any other dangers at the scene. 911 operators don't just receive the "caller's" location and send out help, they walk you through a set list of questions so that the officers responding have the most complete picture possible.

Watch this: Ready for Text-to-911? Not all 911 call centers are

For instance, "if somebody is running from the scene, we need to know what that person looks like, because in a few minutes, you may not remember what they look like," Kimberly Murch, Public Safety Dispatch Supervisor at the Golden Gate Communications Center of the California Highway Patrol told CNET correspondent Sumi Das in an interview.

Staffing is another thing to consider: although the counties and states that have already made Text-to-911 a daily option haven't reported very high usage at this stage, if texting takes off in future years, PSAPs might have to consider hiring more dispatchers. NENA, a 911 association that has been helping shape guidelines in this effort, suggests that emergency call centers accept no more than three conversations at a time per operator.

Context is key

If you've ever needed an emoticon to tell you if your buddy is joking on a text or IM, you know that unadorned type can be a terrible way to convey emotion, because it excludes all the social cues bound up in voice communication. The ability to take in the caller's mental and emotional state over a voice call to 911 shouldn't be weighed lightly.

According to dispatch supervisor Kimberly Murch from the California Highway Patrol:

You can tell if somebody is under a lot of stress, if they're experiencing an emotional situation -- this is usually not a good time for a caller; they've witnessed a crime. They've witnessed something happening to them, or they've experienced it. You can hear that in their voice, you can tell which direction you need to take the questions to.

In addition to tone of voice, dispatchers also glean information from sounds they hear in the background, for instance gunshots or a scuffle, or maybe the sound of shouting.

"We'll get it to the officers that are out there," Murch continued, "and say: 'This person is a crying, screaming citizen. We're not able to get much because they're under a lot of stress. We have a location, this is what's going on that we can hear in the background.' And we take it from there."

Routing issues could take time to straighten out

When you send a text to 911, just like a call, it routes to the closest emergency call center near you. Yet the logistics of correct routing are still a concern that local authorities keep in mind.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Capt. Rosanne Richael explained it to Sacramento, Calif. CBS TV station KOVR like this:

If you do not have that communication between, say, us and [Sacramento Police], when your jurisdictional boundary can literally be across the street, it will make it very difficult to handle that situation in a timely manner, thus, putting peoples' lives in jeopardy.

NENA, the National Emergency Number Association (also known as the 911 Agency), warns emergency call centers about the possibility of having texts misrouted to the wrong sector if a texter's location straddles jurisdictions. As with most other issues that crop up with the Text-to-911 program, the only solution is for individual counties to contact the carriers and work out a set of protocols on their own.

Sending 911 texts while roaming also won't work, even if the network you're roaming on also supports Text-to-911. Roger Hixson, NENA's director of technical issues, explains that the 911 texting program needs to know exactly where you are, and that's not the kind of information that can pass from your host carrier to your home carrier yet.

So when do you want to text 911 instead of call?

While the agencies involved with the Text-to-911 program still urge you to call when you can and save texting as a final resort, there are right times to use it.

For instance, texting 911 gives Americans with speech and hearing impairments direct access to a 911 operator. And texting is practically the mother tongue of today's teens, who might feel more comfortable or more natural drafting an SMS before finding the dial screen.

There are also serious situations in which uttering a word would make the situation even more dangerous.

"We know that, in the case of Virginia Tech, a number of the students there were trying to text to 911 or texting to their friends about the situations they were in, simply because they couldn't talk for fear of their lives," Brian Fontes, NENA's CEO, told CNET, adding that the same scenario applies to situations of domestic abuse.

The way forward

There's no clear-cut answer on how long it will take to get 911 texts up and running at the more than 6,000 PSAPs across the US, or how long it will take to clear those hurdles that stand in the way of smooth communication with 911 operators.

Some issues, like prioritizing emergency text messages across the network -- are in want of technical solutions.

"Most mobile technology used today is considered 'store and forward'," a Sprint spokeswoman told CNET in an email. Moreover, she continued:

"Text-to-911 is based completely on a 'best efforts' legacy SMS architecture. We need to look forward to next-generation communication technologies that will allow for versatility, redundancy, resiliency, and reliability from the ground floor of the design stage, rather than attempting retrofitting antiquated technologies that are ready to be retired."

There's no doubt that organizations in the telecommunications and public safety industries -- like NENA, the FCC, the CTIA lobby group, wireless carriers, and more -- are committed to making Text-to-911 work. What's more, they're already mapping out ways to add photo- and video-messaging to 911 into the mix as part of a wider project dubbed Next-Generation 911.

For the time being, though, NENA CEO Brian Fontes is most concerned about the task at hand -- getting local governments on board with 911 texting.

"There's a need for leadership -- both on the local and state levels -- to make sure that texting will be made available," Fontes said. Although Fontes knows that this is an individual decision that will show staggered results, "It would be nice if [each] state rolled out a game plan, if you will, to say, 'OK, we are committed to rolling out Text-to-911'."

When that happens, emergency responders will be not just a call -- but also a few finger taps -- away.

Article updated May 15, 2014 at 9:10am PT with details on texting 911 while roaming.