Text From 911: Sending an Emergency Text Message to Save Lives

November 17, 2017

Noah Reiter

text from 911 Emergency text message service

Text From 911: How an Emergency Text Message Service is Saving Lives and Driving Efficiency

Written by Noah Reiter
Published on November 17, 2017


In the age of technology, an abundance of emergency text message service tools exist to help 911 call centers quickly send help to a citizen in need. Text-to-911 is one of those important advancements in emergency communications, allowing citizens to reach emergency call takers through text messages. While over 1,200 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) or 911 centers in 44 states have implemented text-to-911, the service still remains widely unused by both citizens and PSAPs.

However, a growing number of enterprising PSAPs are leveraging applications that allow them to send an SMS text to citizens either when voice communications are not possible or to provide operational efficiencies for emergency or non-emergency call processing. This two-way communication practice is referred to as Text from 911 and through the use of enhanced 911 technology, a collection of 911 centers have been applying this strategy to save more lives and conserve resources.

For instance, one widely used tool that enables SMS text from 911 has facilitated the delivery of nearly 300,000 SMS text messages to callers from November 2016 through October 2017. That’s a staggering number that demonstrates the necessity of the Text from 911 functionality. Below is a deep dive into the most common scenarios prompting an emergency telecommunicator to initiate a Text from 911 response.

Abandoned 9-1-1 Calls

Abandoned 9-1-1 calls are the most common use of the Text from 911 feature capability. The scenario is a familiar one to many: a wireless 9-1-1 call is placed and is terminated prior to being answered by the telecommunicator or before 9-1-1 can acquire the necessary information. This prompts a sequence of events that varies slightly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it always starts with an attempt to call the 10-digit number back at least once, sometimes twice. When the callback goes unanswered, which some PSAPs anecdotally say happens in 98% or more of their attempts, the telecommunicator will typically leave a voicemail instructing the individual to call again if they need emergency assistance. Here’s where standard operating procedures (SOPs) tend to vary quite a bit.

Most busy law enforcement agencies ask the PSAPs not to dispatch them to the Phase II wireless location (the caller’s approximate location data provided by the wireless carrier) of an abandoned call, unless they were able to make contact with the caller or have another reason to suspect a need for help. Police departments simply don’t have the resources to respond to these types of calls where they are highly unlikely to find the person who dialed 9-1-1 and, if they do, it will turn out to be an accidental or pocket dial the overwhelming majority of the time.

Other law enforcement agencies choose to respond to every wireless abandoned call. This is both a resource-intensive and potentially dangerous pursuit. It’s expensive because most of these responses lead to an unfounded disposition – no reporting party could be located. Those 5-10 minutes that an officer or deputy was responding to the location and searching the area could have been spent responding to another call or, better yet, engaging in proactive or community policing activities. It’s also potentially dangerous because a responding officer has no information about what might be transpiring and unfortunately in the past, some false 9-1-1 calls have been placed to draw an officer to an area to be ambushed.

Here’s where Text from 911 comes into play. After an abandoned call takes place, a voice callback will still be attempted, but at the same time, the telecommunicator can also send a brief templated text message to the wireless number that dialed 9-1-1. Once received, that individual can respond to the telecommunicator, even in areas where text-to-911 is not yet available. The results have been impressive. Some PSAPs report that 20% – 30% of their text messages are answered. That is a rather high percentage, compared to the 1% – 2% of callers who answer the voice call back. The majority of responses report accidental dials and no emergencies, which then allows the PSAP to close out the call without dispatching law enforcement, saving time and operational costs.

In some instances, the abandoned calls turn out to be actual emergencies. Many of these are related to people in domestic or spousal violence situations. The responses to an emergency text message not only provide a dispatchable address but also information about the nature of the emergency, which allows the PSAP to dispatch the right resources to keep first responders safe. In the case of an active assault or domestic incident, text from 911 turns an abandoned call with no dispatch into one with a dispatch of multiple units to a specific location with detailed information such as the suspect description, location, and weapons involved.

Third Party Welfare Checks

Here’s another common scenario:

9-1-1. What’s the location of your emergency?

Caller: I’m worried about <insert family member or friend’s name here>. He has a history of depression, has been drinking and I can’t get a hold of him. I’m worried he might do something to harm himself. Here’s his phone number…


These types of calls strain a PSAP’s resources by requiring the call taker to determine if the individual in question truly is in danger, but if they refuse to answer the phone for a loved one, how likely are they to answer an unknown 10-digit number from the PSAP? Further complicating the telecommunicator’s job is determining whether the caller’s plea for help constitutes grounds for submitting an exigent circumstance location request from the wireless carrier. Even if it does, it will take a long time to have the request fulfilled.

Here’s where Text from 911 comes into play. PSAPs will attempt to send an emergency text message to the person in distress after they fail to answer a voice call. In several of these instances, the person has actually responded to the emergency text message and given enough information for the PSAP to be able to provide them with the assistance they need to keep them from harming themselves.

Referral of Non-Emergency Calls to Citizen Self-Service Portals

Another use case for text from 911 involves providing information already available online for the caller to use to take next steps. When a member of the public calls to report an incident, such as misdemeanor theft, property damage, vandalism or any other type of complaint that the city or county has an online reporting mechanism for, the call taker can send the link to the appropriate website in a text message. The caller is satisfied because they can quickly complete the online form to generate a report and not have to wait an hour or longer for an officer to respond to their low priority complaint. The PSAP benefits as well because it can free up a telecommunicator much more quickly than having to wait for the caller to find a pen and paper and take down a long web address. This represents another operational enhancement with real return on investment by increasing call taker availability and reducing answer times.

Non-Emergency Response Status Updates

Another situation loosely related to the previous example is for PSAPs providing status updates to reporting parties for low priority incidents. Some PSAPs have the practice of contacting the reporting party every 45 minutes for incidents such as property damage to try to keep the individual from calling 9-1-1 again and creating an additional workload. This solution is still time-consuming in an environment that seeks to drive as much operational efficiency as possible. An answer to this is leveraging Text from 911 for the status updates to keep dispatchers from having to provide a more time-consuming update via voice-call and also to prevent additional, unnecessary calls to 9-1-1.

Provide Your Experience with Emergency Text Message Service Tools

The best practices for Text from 911 presented here demonstrate how PSAPs can enhance emergency response and increase operational efficiency. There are certainly other examples not covered here, which will be covered in sessions during the Rave User Summit. Let us know if you’re interested in presenting text from 911 success stories, or register to attend the Summit to learn more about the lifesaving impact of leveraging an emergency text message service.

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