If you ever need help from emergency services, but can’t dial 911 to speak with someone on the phone, consider sending a text message to 911 instead.
Deployed last October to Santa Cruz Regional 911, which includes San Benito County, the 911 texting program aims to meet public safety needs in the event that a phone call is not possible but a text message is possible.
Not publicly announced until the end of August, when the program was also ready to go in Monterey County and with the CHP, 911 texting is still not a “guaranteed service,” according to William Harry, Director of Emergency Communications for Monterey County. In fact, in many cases it is still safer and easier to dial 911 and speak to a dispatcher on the phone.
Still, there are circumstances where it may be dangerous for a victim to place a call, and that’s where texting comes in. According to Harry, it’s as simple as “[putting] 911 in the ‘to’ box, and in the message, [explaining] what you’re looking for.” For San Benito residents, 911-textng is available to everyone using a major phone carrier, according to Dennis Kidd, General Manager of Santa Cruz Regional 911.
However, because of poor cell carrier infrastructure in San Benito County, the service may not be quite as good as in the surrounding areas. “The infrastructure [in San Benito County] provided by the cell carriers isn’t as developed as some of the other counties. So there might be areas in [San Benito] where the cellular carriers won’t accept a text to 911,” said Kidd. “It seems to me, from my experience, that more people in San Benito County get the message saying ‘text not available in this area’ than in Santa Cruz County,” he continued.
There are some other drawbacks of the service. For one, a text message doesn’t provide specific location information in the same way as a traced phone call. “For a residential, hardwired line, when [someone] calls, [dispatchers] automatically get location information that includes street address, name and callback number,” said Harry. Even if someone places a call from a cell phone, “if it’s a registered phone, [the dispatcher] will get a callback number and a latitude, longitude of [the caller’s] location.” However, when someone uses the 911-texting service, “the location information is not as precise as it would be for a phone call.”
That means it may take a series of text messages before help can actually be dispatched. The first text from someone who needs help should identify who is calling and their situation, making it clear that they are in trouble. If that first text is received, a dispatcher will respond with follow up questions, including asking for location information.
“One of the things that callers using any type of 911 system need to be prepared for is they’re going to be questioned by the dispatcher. So, rather than ramble on about what your problem is, in a manner that is sometimes incoherent, because that is the way people in emergency services react, they need to wait for the dispatcher to ask the question and lead them through the process,” said Harry.
In addition, only messages sent in the Latin alphabet and, for the most part, in English, are currently accepted. That means no emojis and no abbreviations. Kidd does say that he has four Spanish speaking dispatchers who cover Santa Cruz Regional 911 and who could respond to 911-texts in Spanish. “If the person who is communicating with us can write in Spanish, and we had a dispatcher working who could write in Spanish, we could do it in Spanish. But there isn’t any translation service incorporated into the system,” meaning if the Spanish speakers on Kidd’s staff aren’t working that day, Spanish texts are not able to be processed.
If a 911-text is received but is unintelligible, or if the system is overloaded, or if the 911-texting service isn’t available in the sender’s area, an automatic message immediately bounces back that advises the person who needs help to call 911.
“You’ll know you’ve gotten through if you don’t receive an immediate, automated message back,” said Harry.
There are also a few “canned messages,” according to Harry, that any dispatcher can send out if they receive a message that is incoherent, advising the sender to use English, avoid abbreviations, and skip the emojis.
“There are several pilot tests going on with language translation entities,” said Harry, who acknowledges that many households in the area speak Spanish. These programs would allow dispatchers who do not speak Spanish to translate questions and responses. However, the programs are still being tested and are not ready to go live.
“The next step,” said Harry, “is real time text, where you can use aspects other than just the Latin keyboard. That will greatly expand the ways people can describe themselves and get their message across.”
While this new emergency services program is seen as a great benefit to the community, the general guidance is still, “Call if you can, text if you can’t,” in part because of the limitations of the texting program, but also because some basic human needs are easier met on a phone call.
“When [a dispatcher] is listening to somebody talk, [they] hear the inflection in their voice, [they] hear background information, so the dispatchers and call takers can take clues from that. You can’t do that on a text.”
And, for the person placing a call, it’s often a good idea for them to have a more substantial link to another human being via a phone call as opposed to a text message. “I think people generally, if they have the option, would prefer to talk face-to-face, and use voice…as opposed to having to resort to texting.”
That said, if someone in San Benito County ever finds his or herself unable to make a phone call, but can text, this service should be considered.