Illinois cities implement new text-to-911 service

The Northwest Central Dispatch Center (NCDC) implemented a new text-to-911 service that went into effect Aug. 18. Customers of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile will be able to send a text message to 911 for emergency help in select Illinois cities.

The NCDC is the first dispatch center in Illinois to offer text-to-911 and covers Buffalo Grove, Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village and other cities in the area, according to the Buffalo Grove Sun Times.

“The Northwest Central Dispatch Center took the initiative to provide text-to-911 because text messaging is one of the primary ways people communicate  with each other today,” Michael Szos, Deputy Chief in Buffalo Grove Police Department, said.

Many people used to think they could text 911 for help, according to the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 11. The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 was a “technological wake-up call.” Students said they tried to text for help when the service wasn’t available yet, the Tribune said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), all cell phone carriers must be able to provide customers with text-to-911 by the end of 2014. The FCC also stated that, as of now, text-to-911 is only available in designated 911 call centers that have elected to accept emergency text messages from the public.

Currently, text-to-911 has been implemented in 128 call centers throughout 18 states. The service will soon be widely available all over the United States as 911 centers work to modernize their systems. Although it is currently impossible to contact 911 through iMessage, a popular messenger for iPhone users, it is something that the Federal Communications Commission will try to work towards, Rita Falk, Database Analyst at NCDC said.

The text messages to 911 are meant to be brief, but without the use of abbreviations. Text messages should also include the location, since the dispatch center cannot track text messages. The text taker can also provide additional questions over text if needed, Szos said.

“Texting should be used in a situation where one is unavailable to talk or is in a situation in which they are injured and cannot speak,” Szos said. “It is also for those who are deaf or speech impaired.”

Texts to 911 will be received in the same vicinity that calls are received, however, in the event of multiple calls and text messages being received, the 911 call taker will prioritize calls over text messages.

On Sept. 11, the Chicago Tribune said that the NCDC received about a dozen messages since the implementation of text-to-911. About half of those were either prank or accidental texts. The challenge is to educate people on the usefulness of texting 911, the Tribune said.

It is also better to call 911 since texting can be unreliable, Falk said. Text messages can sometimes take longer to send and may be received out of order.

Falk said, “We want to make sure that people understand that calling is always the best and fastest way to contact 911.”