“I need help,” a woman in Waterloo, Iowa, texting for help from her cell phone. “My boyfriend wont [sic] leave my house.” A dispatcher at the Black Hawk Consolidated Communications Center sent two police officers to her house, then typed back, “does he have any weapons, has he assaulted you or anyone else?” The woman only had time to press a few keys: “Not now no.” Sixteen minutes later, the boyfriend was in handcuffs, in violation of a judge’s no-contact order.

Black Hawk County is the nation’s first call center to embrace 9-1-1 texting technology. The simple yet effective I.T. upgrade is particularly valuable for citizens with a physical disability that impairs their hearing or speech and for hostages and victims of domestic violence that need to communicate discreetly, says Judy Flores, administrative supervisor at the call center.

“It’s really about the person who needs the help,” says Flores. “[Dispatchers] being able to answer those calls and get a proper response to them is a life-saving measure. And saving a life is well worth it.”

Counties in Nebraska, Michigan, and Colorado, among others, also receive texts. In Black Hawk County, text requests are exceedingly rare. Yet administrators expect they’ll get more in the years ahead, as a younger generation that predominately relies on texting needs help. Already, they find that many suicidal individuals prefer typing to talking.

While texting is helpful in some situations, dispatchers still prefer the old-fashioned phone call. “Voice is still the best way. There’s a lot of things you can’t pick up from a text: the background noises, hearing the inflection of a voice, telling if someone’s crying,” Flores says. And texts don’t come with a location, unless the person explicitly provides an address. Flores’s advice: “Call if you can; text if you can’t.”