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Texting to 9-1-1 For Emergencies When Traveling: What You Need to Know

The capability of texting an emergency call into 9-1-1 has recently started in the U.S. What does this mean to you as a traveler?

  • You may be in a situation where it is too dangerous to speak (in a hotel room where an intruder has entered, in the back of a taxi cab where you feel at grave risk, or any place where trouble is happening now).
  • You are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech disability (though the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) prefers you use a TTY (telecommunications relay) service first.

911

What are the limitations of this new text-to-911 service as of this writing (updated June 2016)?

  • This texting to 9-1-1 is only in certain areas. While the four major mobile phone carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) have all added the texting capability, not all local 9-1-1 call centers are capable of receiving the texts. There is a listing of which areas in the U.S. can use the text-to-911 service now and it is a short list – Text to 911 Deployments. As of today, only certain municipalities within 35 states (and one call center in Puerto Rico) have the ability to receive emergency text messages..
  • While you may think that if you are texting from a mobile phone that the 9-1-1 call center could easily identify your location, that is not the case. It is actually better to be on a voice call where the call center can approximate your location automatically.
  • The FCC does not have the authority to issue rules to 9-1-1 call centers so it cannot require the acceptance of text messages.

While this service is new and has significant limitations, it is worth knowing if this capability is available to you, both at home and where your travels may take you. If you do have an emergency where you send a text message and the local 9-1-1 center can’t accept it, an automated “bounce-back” message will be sent back to you with instructions to do a voice call to 9-1-1 instead. This is critical as otherwise you may think your message was received when it wasn’t.

For more on texting an emergency call to 9-1-1, see What You Need to Know About Text-to-911.

If you’re traveling abroad, you may want to inquire before you go as to whether the local country has similar texting capability to their emergency call center. In the UK, for example, this capability exists to text 999 though your mobile phone number needs to be registered beforehand. See EmergencySMS in the UK for details.

As an FYI, I wrote a previous article on Know Your International Emergency Telephone Numbers that would be a good reference before heading off to another country. The numbers of 9-1-1 will not get you to an emergency call center is most other countries so know the correct number before you go!

This post was updated in June 2016 to reflect the added municipalities that now allow text-to-911. The most up-to-date list can be found on the FCC’s website.


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