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Ask A Cop: Can I Text 911 On My Cell Phone?

Have a question for the Sheriff's Office? Let us know.

Is there anything you have ever wanted to know from the police department? Well, this is your chance to ask. We will be teaming up with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies from around the county to answer your questions.

Whether you have a question about certain laws and how they might affect you, your family or friends or how to stay safe in certain situations, we want you to ask them. Every week we will run one question and answer. To submit a question, email Shannon.burkey@patch.com.

Question:

I was watching a movie the other day where a woman was hiding under her bed because her house was getting burglarized by armed robbers. She was afraid to call 911 because if she made noise she might put herself in more danger, so I thought she should just text 911. Is there any way to text 911 or alert authorities of an emergency without making noise? If not, what do you suggest people in this kind of situation should do?

Answer:

At this time, there isn’t any technology in place in California that would allow a 911 center to receive text messages. In fact, if someone does send a text to 911 in California they will get an auto-response saying “Please make a voice call to 911. There is no text service to 911 available at this time.”  

If possible, a person in distress should attempt to make a 911 call using their landline or VOIP phone. If they don’t feel safe speaking, they should leave the line open. Do not hang up on 911. We call every 911 hang up back. In this case, a callback could alert an intruder to the caller’s presence.

Landline and VOIP phones have ANI/ALI (Automated Number Information/Automated Location Information) information associated with them that is provided to the 911 center when a call is made. Having this automated information allows the dispatcher to create a call for service for the location provided within a matter of seconds. The dispatcher may attempt to establish communication with the caller without the caller having to speak much or at all.  We may try asking “yes” or “no” questions so that the answers are brief or develop some sort of code system such as pressing a button in response to a question. Even if the caller cannot respond, the dispatcher will continue to monitor the line until an officer is at the address. 

Tip: If the caller can say even one word that indicates an emergency, do it. Even just the word “HELP” is a clear indication that the call wasn’t accidental. We get a lot of 911 misdials, both landline and cell phone. 

If a landline or VOIP phone is not available, the same thing can be done with a cell phone; however, a cell phone will not provide ANI/ALI. Depending on the generation of the cell phone, the location can be determined using the phone’s GPS, but GPS is not 100 percent accurate. Subscriber information could be obtained from the cell provider but this takes a significant amount of time and is dependent on the subscriber keeping their information accurate. Alternatively, send a text to a friend or family member who is a reliable text reader and tell them to call 911 for you.

While the existing 911 system has been a success story for more than 30 years, technological advances have stretched it to its limit. New wireless and IP-based devices that are capable of delivering messages via text and video are being developed and utilized at steadily increasing rate, thus greatly expanding the need for 911 centers to be able to accept these and other sources of emergency data. Although we can expect to see these changes in our lifetime, the modernization of the 911 network is in its infancy in California and will not be complete for several more years.

To learn more about plans for “Next Generation 911” in California, read the proposed California NG9-1-1 Roadmap (http://www.cio.ca.gov/Government/Publications/Proposed_State_of_CA_NG9_1-1_Roadmap.pdf).

For more information about the proposed changes to emergency communications, visit www.nena.org and search NG911.

~Stephanie Zube, Santa Cruz Regional 911 Operations Supervisor

Mary Smith July 31, 2012 at 11:44 PM
This question is along the same lines as a question I have that no one as yet has been able to answer: WHY can't I call 911 using my bluetooth? Police don't want us to use our hands to hold our cells while driving. Mine is usually in pocket or purse when I'm using my bluetooth. Can you imagine the risk of trying to steer the car while reaching to fumble in my pocket or purse?? It's ridiculous, and very dangerous! I'm not asking for a solution, such as keeping my cell in a more accessible place while driving. I can figure that out on my own! I want to know WHY our bluetooths are not able to dial 911 via our voice command! Does ANYONE know the answer?
Kathy O'Mara August 01, 2012 at 02:18 AM
What a well written informative article. Thank you, Stephanie Zube.
Jacob Bourne (Editor) August 01, 2012 at 02:25 AM
I have wondered about this for so long! Glad to have an answer.

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