The need to call 911 is something you never want to think about. But what if you’re caught in a situation where you can’t even make a call without risking your life? Or what if you’re deaf or hard-of-hearing? What are your options then, other than super slow teletypewriters (TTY) or telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD), as 911.gov suggests?
The question of text-to-911 programs has suddenly become very relevant following last month’s mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The city’s 911 dispatch centers don’t have the capability of accepting texts, meaning that many of the people trapped in Pulse had to resort to texting relatives out of fear of drawing attention to themselves by making voice calls. One victim, Eddie Justice, texted his mother as he hid from the shooter in a bathroom. ”Call police,” he wrote. ”I’m gonna die.” And then, just moments later, he texted her again. “Call them, Mommy. Now. He’s coming.”
Unfortunately, Orlando definitely isn’t in the minority with its lack of text-to-911 capabilities. Of the nation’s more than 6,000 911 dispatch centers, just over 650 accept text messages. And even then, there are concerns with text-to-911. Dispatchers can’t get details as quickly through text. Location can’t be automatically determined like it can via phone call. Emergency officials worry about the possibility of overuse slowing down response times to actual emergencies. And, of course, the possibility of abusing the system exists: last year in Georgia, a girl was arrested in her home after she falsely reported an active shooter situation at a high school via text.
But there are the positives, too. As mentioned before, widespread text-to-911 would allow the deaf and hard-of-hearing to report emergency situations, as well as people in precarious situations where phoning 911 would alert the attacker and possibly cost the victim his or her life.
Texting could also aid the police, as Joseph Giacalone, a retired police detective and criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told the AP: “If someone could snap a photo or a quick video showing the perpetrator, that’d be enormously helpful to law enforcement.”
Other supporters include U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, who said text-to-911 programs can “save lives by informing 911 dispatchers of critical details that can guide first responders,” and New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, who said it’s a “common-sense initiative that will help save lives.” In New Hampshire, text-to-911 is available statewide.
Now, in spite of the concerns, it looks like text-to-911 programs are about to take off. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 150 of the nation’s dispatch centers are set to make the upgrade to text-to-911 this year.
The question remains, though, of whether text-to-911 will become the be-all, end-all solution to the problem of modern technology. Because what about people who don’t have access to cell phones, or who have made the switch to VoIP-only calling (think Skype), as Wired recommended at the beginning of last year? 911 doesn’t work with Skype. Does WhatsApp work with 911? Are FaceTime calls as accurate with location as phone calls are?
For now, calling 911 is still preferred over texting. “Call if you can, text if you can’t” is the slogan of choice for nearly all the municipalities with text-to-911. Hopefully it will be something we all have drilled into our heads before long, as 911 makes the slow transition into the twenty-first century.