Using 911: If you can’t call, text

Texting to 911 is now possible in Webster County

-Messenger photo by Peter Kaspari
Jenny Randleman, a dispatcher with the Webster County Communications Center, demonstrates how she would respond to a person who texted in a 911 call. The conversation is in the upper right hand monitor.

Those who need immediate assistance of Webster County first responders now have a new way of getting ahold of emergency crews: They can text to 911.

The service, which is being promoted as “911: Call if you can, text if you can’t,” has already been used by Webster County residents, according to Scott Forbes, Webster County emergency management coordinator.

The process of implementing texting to 911 has been ongoing for about six years, when the state started upgrading the 911 network.

“It’s coordinating between the equipment at all the answering points, which are dispatch centers, as well as wireless providers,” Forbes said.

All six wireless providers in Iowa are able to text to 911 in Webster County.

-Messenger photo by Peter Kaspari
This photo shows what a text conversation between a person and 911 would look like.

It was decided to add the ability to text 911 to add another way of getting help.

“It can be helpful if you’re deaf, hard of hearing, have a speech disability or if making a voice call to 911 would be dangerous to yourself or not possible,” he said.

It’s still recommended, when possible, to dial 911, he said.

That’s because texting to 911 has a disadvantage in that dispatchers can’t tell where the text is coming from.

“All you’re going to see is the number and the communication with that number,” Forbes said.

That’s why, if people absolutely need to use texting to 911, they should include their location.

To send a text to 911, Forbes said they should type “911” into the “to” field.

“And then make sure when you send that initial one, you try to provide your location as best as possible, and a short description of the emergency,” he said. “Use simple words, not abbreviations. Also, do not try to send a text to 911 that is part of a group text.”

That can cause confusion, Forbes said.

And if someone is in an area where texting to 911 is not available, they will get a message saying the message has not gone through.

Dispatch centers can only accept text messages and not photos or videos.

Forbes said 97 of Iowa’s 99 counties have texting capabilites to 911, with the remaining two coming on board soon. Those two are Pottawattamie and Scott counties.

He went on to say that making a false report via text is the same as calling 911 to report an emergency that’s not happening.

“Do not test to see if it works,” he said. “Not only because you could tie up resources and prevent someone from receiving the help they need, but it’s also against the law.”

Forbes said being able to text to 911 is very advantageous, especially for people who may be in an emergency where they can’t actually speak to a dispatcher.

“The example I use is someone breaking into your house and you feel for your safety and want to get ahold of 911 but you’re scared to talk,” he said. “This gives the option that dispatchers can have a conversation between parties to get that critical information instead of just calling 911 and not know what’s going on.”