You Can Now Text 911 in Orlando. But Should You?
Orange County is just one of the latest counties to upgrade its 911 system to receive text messages. This new mode of communication allows those previously disenfranchised from voice calls because of disability or unpropitious situations access to emergency services. However, the fact that carriers have made the service available does not necessarily mean that 911 text messages should be your first choice. There are several important things the public needs to know about how the new Text to 911 system works, as well as where it works and when it should and should not be used.
When should you Text to 911?
You should always call 911 when you can. In a situation where a few seconds are the difference between life and death, a voice call is the best and fastest way for 911 operators to retrieve and deliver life-saving information. Text to 911 should only be used when a voice call is NOT an option.
However, certain situations arise where Text to 911 is the only option. Many members of the handicap community are at a significant disadvantage, and phone calls may not be a viable source of communication, especially amongst those who are mute and deaf. Previously, individuals who couldn’t make a voice call had the option of using a TTY machine for making calls, but these cumbersome devices are not readily available and have been known to fail to transmit. As was the case when Jay Shufeldt attempted three times to call 911 with a TTY device the night he found his wife to be unresponsive in their bed, she passed away that same night after emergency services arrived too late1. In a technological age where cell phones are everywhere and sending a text message can be done within seconds, Text to 911 has become a feasible option for individuals impaired by disability who don’t have the luxury of making a phone call.
Aside from speech and hearing impairment, Text to 911 can be ideal for those who are in an area where they don’t have access to good phone reception, or callers who are in a situation where a call can be dangerous ( victims of domestic violence, shootings, or other circumstances). If a call is attempted, but the operator hears no response or if the call is abandoned entirely, dispatchers will sometimes send available units. However, more and more law enforcement agencies are moving away from this practice as this is both a resource-intensive and potentially dangerous pursuit. It’s expensive because most of these responses lead to an unfounded disposition – no reporting party could be located. Those 5-10 minutes that an officer or deputy was responding to the location and searching the area could have been spent responding to another call or, better yet, engaging in proactive or community policing activities. It’s also potentially dangerous because a responding officer has no information about what might be transpiring. Unfortunately, in the past, some false 9-1-1 calls have been placed to draw an officer to an area to be ambushed.
If you have to Text to 911
If the situation arises where a phone call can put you in a perilous position, or if you belong to a group where voice calls are not effective, make sure your message meets the following parameters.
Always provide your EXACT LOCATION and the NATURE OF THE EMERGENCY: This will allow emergency services to quickly and efficiently find you and will enable dispatchers to send out the appropriate responding unit. If you do not know your exact location do your best to describe the location with as much detail as possible.
Remember to mute your phone if you are in a dangerous situation: If you find yourself in a situation where noise or a phone call can put you in danger, ensure that all ringtones, vibrations, and notifications are silenced to avoid placing yourself further in harm’s way.
Avoid using slang, social media jargon, or abbreviations: When communicating about an emergency, it is essential to be precise and clear, confusing slang or jargon can be detrimental and will only further delay emergency services.
DO NOT send photos, emojis, GIFs or videos.
DO NOT send a group text.
Just Like texting with a friend, your phone needs a data plan that supports text messages. For the recipient, make sure to put in “911” with no dashes or additional information. In the subject line, ensure to add the information detailed above.
Remember to call!
As mentioned before, calling should be your primary means of communicating with emergency services. Text to 911 will typically take longer than a voice call, and many callers find the sound of a dispatcher’s voice to be calming. Having the dispatcher on the line allows the caller to give live updates and to be given instructions by emergency services to help with the situation. Most importantly, 911 operators can quickly pinpoint and track a phone call with GPS technology a life-saving feature not available with Text to 911, especially useful to callers in distress who may not be able to supply clear and coherent information.