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911: Call if you can, text if you can’t

Dec. 7, 2017

Photo of a 911 dispatcher demonstrating the technology that allows people to text 911.
Photo: A 911 dispatcher demonstrates the technology that allows people to text 911 if they are deaf or hard of hearing or if calling would compromise their safety.

In an emergency, your first instinct is probably to dial 911. It’s a trusted way to call for help when it’s needed the most. But there are a lot of reasons why calling 911 in an emergency would be unsafe or impossible. What if you’re deaf or hard of hearing? What if you’re speech impaired? Or what if there’s a crime in progress – a home invasion or domestic violence situation, for example – and talking on the phone would compromise your safety? And if you encounter a person who is suicidal or particularly agitated, texting 911 could be a better idea than calling.

That’s why the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Emergency Communication Networks division (DPS-ECN) has been hard at work to deploy the Text-to-911 program on a statewide level. The new service, which launched December 5, will allow you to contact a 911 dispatcher anywhere in Minnesota, even if you can’t talk.

All you have to do is type the numbers “911” into the “To” field in a new text. The text message should include your address and type of emergency. That first part is extremely important, because location isn’t as accurate with texting as it is with a phone call – so be prepared to give nearby intersections and specific landmarks if you don’t know the exact address. And if you’re driving while the emergency is occurring, pull over and stop the car so you’re not texting and driving. Be sure to use simple words, but don’t use abbreviations or emojis. Once you send the message, be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions.

We live in a world where texting is more common than a phone call. But in an emergency, time can be the difference between life and death. Think about how long it takes for you to text back and forth with friends or family. It could take that long, or longer, for you to have a text conversation with 911 dispatchers as well. That’s why dispatchers prefer to speak with you whenever possible, so unless you’re deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired, calling 911 should always be your first option (an easy way to remember this is “Call if you can, text if you can’t”). It is time consuming for dispatchers to text, so non-emergencies should be phoned in. And like prank 911 calls, prank texts to 911 are against the law. Also keep in mind that there is currently no language translation service available for texts to 911. And unlike a voice call to 911, a text to 911 will get bounced back to you if you’re roaming.

So remember: now, in an emergency, call 911 if you can or text 911 if you can’t. It’s another way DPS-ECN is working to keep Minnesotans safe.