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Coming soon: 9-1-1 via text, but is it a good idea?

Gabriel Spitzer

If you're faced with a serious emergency, chances are you'll pick up the phone and call 9-1-1. But how about sending a text message instead?  It’s not something 9-1-1 operators can handle now. But, that could soon change.

In recent years, some 9-1-1 operations centers, including the one in King County, have been upgraded to handle text messages. But the systems don’t work because wireless carriers don’t yet offer necessary text-to-9-1-1 service. 

AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have promised to make the service available by May 15, 2014. Now, the Federal Communications Commission(FCC) is taking action in an effort to hold the companies to that promise.

The FCC is proposing that the phone providers be required to offer the service in areas where emergency call centers are capable of receiving them.

Marlys Davis is manager of King County’s Enhanced 9-1-1 system. She says having text capability will be a huge improvement. 

"It’s critical to provide that service to people with hearing and speech disabilities who cannot call 9-1-1 today as well as people who might be in danger if they called," she said.

But, just because you will be to able text instead of call 9-1-1 doesn’t mean you should.

"A voice conversation is a much more efficient communication mode than texting back and forth. In Europe, they’ve shown that an emergency text conversation is taking more than 11 minutes," Davis cautioned.

Emergency operations officials will launch a public education campaign telling people, if at all possible" to "call rather than text" when texting to 9-1-1 service is fully operational.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.