Making Government Work

Send a Text, Save a Life

August 22, 2014
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Send a Text, Save a Life
What if texting could be used for social good? Bethany Clarke/Getty Images
In response to how we use cell phones, emergency call centers now accept text messages. But dialing 911 is still the preferred method of communication.

Simply put, people are addicted to text messaging. They text about important business plans, what to have for dinner or simply to ask their friend, “what’s up?” But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) believes there is a much more important way to use texting.

Instead of using it as merely a means of communication, it’s expanding its scope to serve the well-being of the people through its Text-to-911 initiative.

On January 30 of this year, the FCC called for all 911 call centers to have this texting available by December 31. So far, 100 call centers in 121 counties out of 6,000 nationwide have instituted the new technology (click here for a list). As more add the program, kinks are being worked out to ensure that the most efficient service possible is provided. Phone service providers are stepping up and backing the initiative as well. On May 15, the four main carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — pledged their support to the program in areas where the dispatch centers are equipped to handle the technology. The FCC expanded that reach further on August 8, by opening the technology and service to small carriers also.

So, how does it work? It’s easy: Users text their location and emergency situation to 911. The dispatcher will respond to the message and help will be sent. If the person is not in a text-to-911 service zone, a bounce back message will be sent alerting the person to call 911.

Hamilton County, Ohio is one of the first counties to integrate it. Accustomed to receiving an average of 688,000 calls a year, the dispatch center was a little nervous about how the new addition would work. Although it has only received four text messages so far, the ability to text has made a difference.

One such message was from a young woman considering suicide. Her friend had suggested that she call 911, but the girl was embarrassed that her parents would overhear her on the phone. So, instead, she sent a text message, and the dispatcher talked her out of it.

The big takeaway from all of this can be summed up by Director of Government Affairs at the National Emergency Number Association Trey Forgerty.

As he told ABC News, “It’s always preferable to make a voice call to 911. Call if you can, text only if you can’t.”

While you may tend to rely solely on texting in your everyday life, dialing 911 should remain your default method of communication. Unless, of course, the situation (ahem) calls for a text — for example, involving those who are speech or hearing impaired, stuck in a natural disaster zone or being kidnapped.

MORE: The 7 Smartest Uses of Technology in Government Today

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