Now You Can Text 911 In An Emergency, But This Isn't The Simple Solution It Sounds Like

As landlines become obsolete and smartphones remain glued to our hands, this feels like the natural next step: You'll soon be able to send text messages to 911 in an emergency. Four major wireless carriers in the United States started offering a text-to-911 capability on Thursday as part of a Federal Communications Commission roll-out. While the messaging system is definitely a step forward for emergency response, there's already been a few snags.

The service is only available in select areas for now. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile support the feature, but it's up to dispatchers as to whether they'll equip their stations to receive messages. So if you're injured or witness a crime, don't go sending a text just yet; you'll most likely get a bounce-back message saying it didn't go through to a call center. Which would not help you.

Plus, there are already some red flags with the initial roll-out. Just hours after the program was announced in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, the first text to 911 was made while driving. Yeah. Let's just dwell on that for a bit as a perfect example of how not to do it. The 911 center received a text reporting a potential drunken driver in Pittsburgh, but the message indicated the sender was behind the wheel at a time.

The incident further reinforces officials' advice to the public to always call first unless it's a situation in which it's dangerous to talk out loud, or for those who have difficulty hearing or speaking. Texting to 911 can be especially useful in incidents where victims are hiding from an attacker, or a hostage situation. Many students tried to send emergency messages during the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, but texting to 911 wasn't supported at the time.

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There's no question the service has the potential to save lives, but there are still a lot of kinks to work out before it's fully implemented nationwide. Consider young kids and prank 911 calls. Now, imagine their increased capabilities when all that needs to be done is tap a couple of characters on the screen.

Crucial factors in emergency situations are also lost on operators, including hints such as tone of voice, background noises like shooting or shouting, or whether the caller is under stress — all things that can help guide responders or shed more light on the incident. Also, call centers will receive your location from the text, but they still need to know details like the exact address, suspect description, and answers to other questions that can assist in the efforts.

It'll be some time before texts to 911 will be commonplace. Just remember, smartphones serve other purposes too — you know, making 911 calls.