Updated: 3:45 p.m. | Posted: 1:51 p.m.
People in need of police, fire or emergency medical help have a new way to ask for it in Minnesota — they can text 911 on their mobile phones instead of calling.
The state's Department of Public Safety announced the new service at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It's the result of years of network and software development and training for public safety dispatchers. It is working as of Tuesday, and has been tested extensively with phones connected to all four major wireless phone service providers.
"This new technology, text to 911, is a game changer, and it's going to help save lives," said Bob Hawkins, the state's assistant public safety commissioner.
The state's 104 public safety answering points, which answer 911 calls, have been connected to a text-capable network since 2014, but it wasn't until this year that the training and deployment have been in place.
Officials say in an emergency, people with text-capable phones should:
• Enter the numbers 911 in the "To" field
• Write out an exact address or location and type of emergency
• Send the message immediately
• Use simple words, but no abbreviations, emojis or pictures
• Wait for a response and follow instructions
• Expect a dispatcher to ask to call back
Officials say a call is still preferable, and that should be the first choice for most people. Phone calls can give accurate location information, provide real-time feedback and allow dispatchers to hear what might be going on. There are also no translation services for texts, there is a 160 character limit for messages and they may not be sent or seen in a logical order.
And don't forget: the state also bans texting while driving.
Anne Sittner-Anderson with the Commission of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans said the new service will benefit the 20 percent of Minnesotans with some form of hearing impairment.
"Text-to-911 will help people with hearing loss who at times in the past have depended on friends, family members and even occasionally strangers to get in touch with 911 dispatch for them," said Sittner-Anderson, using sign language.
A silent summons for help may also be valuable for those who are in immediate danger, officials said. Victims of domestic assault, for instance, may risk further injury if an assailant hears they're calling 911 and talking about what is happening.
The ongoing cost of text-to-911 is $24,000 a month, according to a DPS spokesperson.