Dialing 911 may not be an option in every emergency. For example, after a natural disaster or mass casualty incident, a sudden surge in calls for help can overwhelm phone systems, and victims hiding from active shooters or intruders need to quietly ask for help. Fortunately, a growing number of 911 centers now offer a backup plan by accepting texts. And because texts require a lot less bandwidth than voice calls, you might reach help faster if you can’t get through to a 911 center quickly via a call.

Text-to-911 capability is being rolled out nationwide, but it’s not yet available everywhere. According to Massachusetts, all 911 centers in the commonwealth have added it. You can call non-emergency government information numbers to ask about text-to-911 in other states where you travel; the FCC also maintains a regularly updated list showing where this service is or will soon be available here: www.fcc.gov/general/psap-text-911-readiness-and-certification-form

If you need to send a text to 911:

  • Start a new message with “911” in the “To” or “Recipient” field.
  • In the message field, include a brief description of the emergency, your exact address or location, and what you need—police, fire, or ambulance—and hit “Send.”
  • If text-to-911 is not available where you are located, you should get a response telling you to use another method to contact 911. If your text does go through, a 911 operator should text you back to confirm receipt or to ask for more details.
  • The FCC and the National Emergency Number Association advise that calling 911 should always be your first choice, if possible, because:
  • Typing usually takes more time than talking.
  • Texting does not automatically give the 911 operator your precise location information, while calls often do.
  • Your text may be delayed or may not go through, and it might take several minutes for you to realize it.
  • 911 operators often need answers to crucial questions and can ask them more easily via a phone conversation than during a back-and-forth text exchange.