Sometimes a voice call to 911 just won't work, such as for deaf people in need of help or in certain domestic violence cases.
Now, in a big step toward moving the nation's emergency dispatch system out of voice-only technology that dates to the 1960s, four major wireless phone companies are providing text-to-911 service to local governments that want it and have the capability to use it.
Local governments in 16 states are using the service that allows people to send text messages to report emergencies, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and Vermont became the first to offer the technology statewide Monday.
Four companies involved
The four major providers -- Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T -- voluntarily committed to providing the service by May 15. The FCC has required all service providers to offer it by the end of the year.
Brian Fontes, the chief executive officer of the Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association, said the four major carriers offering text-to-911 is "a big deal."
He said that 911 texting is part of a broader push to use technology to enhance the information that can be provided to emergency responders and to put emergency call centers on an equal footing with the technology many people carry in their pockets.
Some professional sports teams already allow fans to report unruly behavior inside stadiums and arenas through texting, while law enforcement has started using text messaging during standoff negotiations.
"It's been a long time -- years, decades -- since our nation's 911 systems have been advanced," Fontes said. "They are pretty much still almost 100 percent voice-centric, 1960s technology."
Call if you can, text if you must
The FCC tells people to limit texts for help to circumstances when voice calls can't be made, such as for the deaf or hard of hearing, or in domestic violence cases or at other times when it's not safe to speak.
Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first to use text 911 in June 2009, said Judy Flores, director of the county's consolidated communication, located in Waterloo.
"It's worked great," Flores said, adding that Iowa is expected to expand the service statewide within the next few weeks.
The text-to-911 service is now limited to text only -- photos, videos and location information will have to wait for the next generation of the technology.
Fontes said he expected the use of text-to-911 would grow, but he can't say how fast. Vermont is one of the few states in the country with a statewide emergency 911 phone system, making rollout easier.
While the number using text 911 is small -- there have only been 34 legitimate 911 texts for help since Vermont started using the system, compared to 208,000 911 voice calls last year -- David Tucker, executive director of Vermont's Enhanced 911 board, notes that it has saved at least one life after dispatchers received a text about a suicide-by-hanging in progress.
"We were able to get a location for the person and it's my understanding the police broke down the door," Tucker said. "The person had already hung themselves. They cut him down and revived him."