How and why you should use Text-to-911 properly

Dec. 3, 2020

Two hands holding a smartphone with a Text-to-911 message on the screen


Picture it: You’re caught up in an emergency, but you can’t talk on the phone. So you use Text-to-911. Hoping to give as much detail as possible about your situation, you decide to attach a photo to your text. What could it hurt?

The answer is, it could ruin your chances of getting help at all. Right now, the Text-to-911 system is not able to accept emojis, photos, videos or graphics. So if you send an emergency text to 911 with any emoji or attachment, you run the risk of your text never getting answered. That’s exactly what happened to a deaf man who texted 911 earlier this year with a picture and got a response saying that Text-to-911 wasn’t available. Chisago County dispatchers also reported receiving a 15-second TikTok video as part of a text to 911, which was bounced back — but not before tying up valuable resources.

When you send anything other than plain text to Text-to-911, it prevents dispatchers from receiving the geographical coordinates where you are located, which makes it almost impossible to find you and get you the help you need. And as long as you’re leaving emojis, photos, videos and graphics out, remember to avoid abbreviations or slang. The idea is to be as clear and understandable as possible so that 911 dispatchers can help you.

As part of the Next Generation 911 project, Minnesota’s Text-to-911 system will eventually get an upgrade that will allow emojis, images, videos and graphics. But until then, it’s important to remember these and other limitations of the system. For example, if English is not your first language, you should  call 911; language translation isn’t yet available for texts. The same goes if you’re near one of Minnesota’s borders: It may get routed to a neighboring state or Canada (or not routed at all), and would thus go unanswered.

When you find yourself needing help in an emergency, remember to call if you can. If you can’t, be sure to include your location and the type of emergency in your first message to Text-to-911. Then wait for a response. Be ready to answer dispatcher questions and follow directions. And remember that 911 is for emergencies only, when you need help from law enforcement, fire or emergency medical services. Contacting 911 – using voice or text – as a false report or a prank is a crime. If you accidentally send a text to 911, follow up with another text or a call to let the dispatcher know there is no emergency.

Minnesota’s Text-to-911 system is turning three and has so far proved a success. For example, in 2019, Minnesota public safety answering points received more than 6,300 texts to 911. That’s an average of 530 texts per month. So remember the limitations of the system so you can get help when you need it most.