When first responders appeared at the home of a woman in rural Vermont, they took her abusive husband by surprise and ended a dangerous situation that was escalating quickly. The domestic violence victim’s plea for help came in the form of a text message to 911.
According to the executive director of Vermont’s Enhanced 911 Board, David Tucker, “Texting is an important niche tool for individuals needing to reach emergency services, especially in situations when calling is unsafe or impossible. There are people who are alive today because they could text message 911.”
As one of the country’s early adopters of next generation 911 systems, Vermont joined forces with Verizon Wireless and Intrado, becoming one of the first states to trial text-to-911. Within days, the system proved highly valuable, resolving domestic violence incidents and providing lifesaving services for suicide attempts. According to Tucker, Vermont has seen the most use of text-to-911 from those who attempt suicide or face domestic violence, noting that “the more anonymous nature of text messaging has allowed individuals from both these groups to reach out for help."
Tucker was surprised to learn that peers from other states were concerned that Vermont was considering deploying text-to-911 as an option, citing that location information wouldn’t be conveyed or there would be an overload of misuse. But Vermont, with a statewide 911 system already in place, forged ahead and an eternally-grateful Tucker credits Verizon with helping make it happen, stating that “we wouldn’t be where we are today if Verizon Wireless hadn’t stepped up to the plate.” Today, 98 percent of wireless subscribers in Vermont are able to send an emergency text.
In addition to Vermont, Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in 16 other states now have the capability to receive text-to-911, according to the FCC, with more to come in the weeks and months ahead.
Experts recommend, however, that even if you have the ability to text 911, you should call if you are able; reserving the text option only for situations when calling can’t be done. This message of “Call if you Can, Text if you Can’t” is the slogan for Vermont’s campaign of public service announcements and Facebook and YouTube ads aimed at educating the public about when to use the service. “If you are able to make a voice call you should still do that. It’s the most efficient and effective way to communicate in an emergency,” Tucker explained. “But if you’re speech- or hearing-impaired, or you’re in a situation where speaking is dangerous, texting can be a life-saving option.”
While the technology can’t yet pinpoint the exact location of a text, more enhancements are being added, including location detail, video and photo sharing, elements which are critical to first responders’ and victims’ success.
"If we had to do this all over again, we would do it," concluded Tucker. "We are being careful to market this new service to those individuals who can most benefit from it, and we've found the concern about folks replacing voice calls with text has proven to be a non-issue. I'm surprised at how many people know about it and have gone out of their way to tell us how great it is. For those who can’t make a voice call, text-to-911 has helped save lives and property."