911 Texting: U.S. Cities Looking At Introducing Text-To-911 Service When It’s Too Dangerous To Talk

In certain perilous situations it is simply too dangerous to dial 911 and talk out loud. For this reason, several cities are now looking into introducing 911 texting.

The recent brutal mass shooting in Orlando is a perfect example of where a text-to-911 service could have helped. The Washington Post brings up the story of Eddie Justice, who was hiding in a bathroom at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando during the shooting and was urgently texting his mother for help.

Justice wrote: “Call police,” and “I’m gonna die.”

A few moments later he sent yet another text: “Call them mommy. Now. He’s coming.”

It turns out Justice who was regrettably confirmed to be among the 49 people killed in the incident was only one of several victims who texted family members, asking them to call 911. They all feared that by making a voice call, they would draw fatal attention to themselves.

Orlando is among the vast majority of U.S. cities that doesn’t have the capability to text 911 directly. According to the Federal Communications Commission, at present, out of more than 6,000 dispatch centers in the U.S., only just over 650 can receive text messages. However there are around 150 making the text-to-911 upgrade this year.

Situations like the mass shooting in Orlando are now reportedly causing more police departments to seriously explore technology that would allow their dispatchers to receive texts, photos and videos in real time.

Reportedly New York City has been studying the idea of 911 texting for a year, with Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer pushing the system, saying it can “save lives by informing 911 dispatchers of critical details that can guide first responders.”

While it sounds like a good idea, especially in active shooter/hostage situations, emergency officials do stress that a voice call to 911 is preferred, as the dispatcher can elicit details far more quickly than by texting back and forth. In many larger cities, there is concern that the overuse of texting could slow response times and end up costing lives.

Reportedly last year in Los Angeles, where the text-to-911 service is not currently available, a police dispatch official did caution that response times for text 911 messages could be triple that of voice calls.

The other problem is that with text messages, the caller’s approximate location is not automatically sent to emergency responders, like it is with a voice call. For this reason almost all areas with the text-to-911 service tend to stress: “Call if you can, text if you can’t.” They do also stress, however, that the 911 texter should give an accurate address or location as quickly as possible in the exchange.

There are several scenarios where the text-to-911 service would be useful besides the active shooter situations. As mentioned by Yahoo Tech, a battered spouse could surreptitiously contact police without alerting their attacker.

Joseph Giacalone, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is also a retired police detective. He recently said, “If someone could snap a photo or a quick video showing the perpetrator that’d be enormously helpful to law enforcement.”

Another example of the text-to-911 service would be in the case of deaf or hard-of hearing people who urgently need to contact the police. An example given was of a deaf woman in Alpharetta, Georgia, who was able to text police to advise them two children were locked in a car in a shopping mall parking lot, allowing officers to rescue them.

Back in April, The Inquisitr reported the story of a couple of Nebraska kids who were so concerned about their father’s drunk driving, they texted 911 to report him from the back seat of the car.

While in New Hampshire, which allows 911 texting statewide, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan says it is a “common-sense initiative that will help save lives,” other authorities are warning that 911 texting, like its voice counterpart, can be abused. An example given was a teenage girl who texted 911 to falsely report an active shooter at a high school in Marietta, Georgia last year, who ended up being arrested at her home an hour later.

[Photo via Flickr by Phillip LeConte, cropped and resized/CC BY-NC 2.0]