At some point, you could find yourself in the midst of an emergency and although you have your cell phone with you, you might not be able to place a call or talk to a 911 operator. You may want to stay quiet because you’re hiding; you may be injured in a way that prevents you from speaking; or you may have poor reception that won’t allow a voice call to be placed. In those cases, you may be able to send a text message to 911 instead.
In 2014, the country’s biggest cell phone carriers launched the Text-to-911 program in which text messages sent to 911 would be rerouted to your local police department. However, it was up to local police departments and call centers to actually implement the program on their end. In the five years since the launch of the program, many jurisdictions have added that capability, making emergency texting an option for more people.
Find out if it works in your area
The Federal Communications Commission tracks which jurisdictions have implemented the Text-to-911 program. You can download that list here and search for your state, city or county. If you’re not on the list yet, check back periodically; the FCC updates the registry once a month.
If the program is active in your area, you can send a text message to 911 the same way you would to anyone else. Simply open a new text message in your phone’s messaging app, enter 911 as the recipient, type your message and hit “send.”
If it’s not available in your area and you attempt to send a text, you’ll receive a bounce-back message to notify you that your message didn’t go through.
What you should—and shouldn’t—send
Text messaging is a slower way of communicating and the operator won’t be able to ask as many quick follow-up questions, so CNET recommends you include as much information as possible in the first message you send. Be sure to include your address or location right away; they may or may not receive that information automatically, depending on the equipment they’re using.
It’s a good idea to include your location along with any nearby intersections and the name of the building, park or business that you’re at. Additionally, say what the situation is, if anyone is hurt, if there are any weapons, and so on.
Try to include as much information as possible in a single message to save time and to keep from having to repeatedly light up your phone’s screen in a situation where you’re trying to hide.
If you can’t talk on the phone, include that in the message, too, because an operator may initially suggest you try calling instead. Don’t send group text messages, photos or videos to 911—operators can’t access any of those on their system.
Also, be as clear as possible by avoiding slang words, abbreviations or emojis. CNET offers this example of a useful emergency text message: “Help, someone broke in my house at 123 main street. I’m hiding in the closet upstairs, can’t talk on the phone.”
Whenever possible, though, the FCC recommends calling 911 rather than texting. It’s still the fastest and most reliable way to get help.