Last updated in January 2020
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. At the time of this writing, almost all of the emergency response centers covering the Washington area had reported to the Federal Communications Commission that they have added it, including D.C., Alexandria, and Arlington, Anne Arundel, Fairfax, Howard, Loudoun, Prince George’s, and Prince William counties. (Montgomery County hadn’t yet added it but was close to implementation.) You can call 311 or other non-emergency government information number to ask about text-to-911 where you live or 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.