Earlier this week, major cellular companies flipped a switch to allow their customers the Text 911 option. But don’t rely on it just yet.
In some areas across the country cellular customers can reach emergency personnel by texting rather than calling, thanks to the new Text 911 program.
But the service is not yet available in all areas, so customers should contact their local police or sheriff’s offices — not by calling 911, obviously — to find out whether their dispatch centers are prepared to handle incoming 911 calls via text. You can also check this list from the FCC. (Just to give you an idea, according to that list, in my home state of South Carolina, only one of its 46 counties is listed as being ready.)
The program is primarily designed to even the playing field for people who are hearing-impaired or speech-impaired, which is a phenomenal thing.
Beyond those groups, I can immediately see one advantage for Text 911: let’s say you’re home alone and an intruder breaks in, unaware that you’re home. You scramble to hide in a closet or other secure hiding place. The last thing you then want to do is tip off the intruder of your presence by risking making a telephone call to police.
It makes perfect sense that this would be a great option.
I suspect a certain generation — the people who can rapid-fire text out a full paragraph faster than it takes the rest of us to even open the text app on our phone — will see the Text 911 option as a much better choice when they need emergency assistance.
I suspect that there’s an excellent chance they’ll be in for a nasty surprise at the worst possible moment.
When I think about all those 911 tapes I’ve heard over the years, and the last time I called 911 from my cell phone, to report a car accident I had just witnessed, I realize how imperfect the 911 system is.
Operators have callers repeat information, sometimes multiple times, to get them to calm down enough to be understood. And that’s after the caller is ultimately connected to the correct agency equipped to handle the call in the first place.
When I saw that accident happen, I called 911 to report it and was transferred three times. It was never clear to me who I was talking to when.
Local police? Local sheriff’s office? State Highway Patrol?
The first two times I explained what I’d seen and where it happened, I was told to hang on and was transferred.
Despite it being the 21st century, and despite advances in GPS, a cell phone’s location does not transport with the call to dispatchers; at least not well enough for them to know where you are.
While I realize there are some people who can type out something faster than they can speak the words — a truly terrifying thought — these overly-talented texters would still have to be calm enough to remember to text their location along with details an operator would be asking them in an actual conversation.
And in the text chat, unless the operators have a great deal of common questions ready to go at the touch of a single button, it’s going to take more time to get help, not less.
Something is better than nothing, to be sure. But this “breakthough” seems, as far as I’m concerned, like it has an uphill fight from the start.