All emergency dispatch centers in the Kansas City metro area’s Regional 9-1-1 System can now receive and respond to text messages, a service officially unveiled late last month.
Text to 9-1-1 service can provide a lifesaving option for people in situations where they cannot speak safely — such as home invasions or active shooter incidents — and for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have difficulty speaking, according to officials. The Regional 9-1-1 System includes 42 public safety answering points in Cass, Clay, Jackson, Platte and Ray counties in Missouri and Johnson, Leavenworth, Miami and Wyandotte counties in Kansas.
All four major cell phone companies in the region — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — now offer text to 9-1-1 service to their wireless customers.
“After nearly a year of testing and training, and a lot of work on the part of our wireless phone carriers, we’re pleased to offer the public another option to call for help when they need,” said Keith Faddis, public safety program director for the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). “Voice calls are still the best way to contact 9-1-1, but having the ability to text 9-1-1 could be the difference that saves a life.”
In order to text to 9-1-1, a person must have a text plan, and a phone or device capable of sending a text. There are some known limitations. Texts to 9-1-1 are treated like any other text, and subject to the same service speeds or delays.
Multimedia or MMS messages — those that include photos, video, emoticons, or are sent to more than one recipient — will not go through.
Public safety officials urge residents to remember that calling 9-1-1 is always preferred. Voice calls allow 9-1-1 dispatchers to gather more information more quickly in an emergency. Unlike phone calls, text messages do not provide the senders exact location, and the service is not available when roaming.
If text to 9-1-1 is not available, callers will receive a bounce-back message saying the service is not available and to make a voice call to 9-1-1.
Local officials caution that, like any new technology, there may be some challenges with texts to 9-1-1. The Federal Communications Commission encourages 9-1-1 call centers to accept texts but does not require it. Greater Kansas City joins a handful of other cities across the nation that are offering the service across an entire metro area, including Dallas, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis and San Antonio.
“We were able to implement this at a regional level because all of our answering points use the same equipment and software,” Faddis said. “It makes sense in a region where many people travel from one county to another or across the state line on a daily basis.”
Although all public safety answering points use the same technology, they also have unique characteristics that may impact the success rate of texting to 911.
In Kansas City, Mo., for example, call centers typically experience a higher call volume, and there are more high-rise buildings. For these reasons, city officials encourage KCMO residents who need emergency services to call 9-1-1 while testing continues. Other cities may have certain areas where cell signals are weak.
“We’ve successfully tested the system, but we still expect to encounter some unexpected situations and continue to learn from them after the system goes live,” Faddis said. “Many of us have experienced times when we send a text and it doesn’t go through. Texts to 9-1-1 are no different. If you don’t get a response or if you get a bounce-back message, call 9-1-1 instead.”
When it is necessary to send a text to 9-1-1, callers should remember these do’s and don’ts:
Enter the phone number 911, with no dashes, in the recipient field.
Provide your address or location and the type of help you need — police, fire or ambulance.
Be brief, but don’t use abbreviations or slang. Texts to 9-1-1 have the same 160-character limit as other text messages.
Watch for a reply text from the 9-1-1 call center, and answer questions or follow instructions from the dispatcher.
Use English. Translation services are not yet available for text messages to 9-1-1.
Don’t use emoticons, and don’t send photos or video.
Don’t copy others on a text to 9-1-1.
“There will no doubt be a learning curve for people who use this new service,” Faddis said, “but we’ve already seen numerous situations across the country where texting to 9-1-1 has played a critical role in saving lives.”
MARC was able to implement text to 911 service with no additional investment in equipment or software by adapting the technology currently used to receive calls from the deaf. Future equipment upgrades may expand the service by adding photo or video features.