In a matter of months, it will be possible to text for emergency help in Minnesota, a development hailed by the state’s deaf community.
The people who run the state’s 911 call centers say they expect limited use of the service due to the slow nature of text conversations, but others say those facing an emergency sometimes need a quiet way to ask for it.
“If someone broke into your house … calling the police would just let the robber … know where you are,” said 11-year-old Gabriel Kaplan, who wrote to the Star Tribune recently asking why it’s not possible to text for help.
Kaplan’s question was prescient: It turns out that federal officials, prodded in part by the nation’s deaf community, have been diligently working behind the scenes to make text-to-911 possible.
This past spring came an announcement from the Federal Communications Commission that the nation’s four major phone carriers — Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon — have made text-to-911 feasible on their networks. Individual states, counties and cities are now picking up the service as their systems allow.
In Minnesota, the change will come statewide rather than city by city and is expected in “months, not years,” said Pete Eggimann, the director of 911 services for the Metropolitan Emergency Services Board.
Eggimann said he expects most people to continue making voice calls to 911.
“It takes too long to type out the message,” he said of texting.
Kaplan said he thought texting to 911 could come in handy. He said he couldn’t sleep one night because he thought someone had broken into his house, and although it turned out to be a false alarm, it left him wishing he could have called for help without having to speak.
He also pointed to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that claimed 33 lives; students attempted to text police for help during the shooting so that they wouldn’t give away their location to the shooter, but their texts didn’t go through.
Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said the department has heard of cases locally in which people used Facebook messages to ask friends to call police for them.
“This will open a whole new avenue for those seeking emergency help,” Elder said.
Deaf community reassured
“We’ve known about this text to 911 for years and have been anxiously waiting for it to be implemented,” said Sonny Wasilowski, vice president of the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens.
His own requests of state officials led him to Dana Wahlberg, who runs the state’s 911 program. She told him there were several potential barriers, such as limited location accuracy, limited ability to transfer misrouted calls, and texts to 911 that didn’t go through when a caller was roaming on another carrier’s network.
Eggimann said that when the program comes online, texters will still have to text their location to the 911 operator. Even then, he added, “texting to 911 should only be used when making a voice call is not possible or is too dangerous.”
It’s not expected to cost much more to add texting services to 911, Eggimann said. The bulk of 911 costs are paid by consumers through a surcharge on their phone bill.
David Rosenthal, director of deaf and hard of hearing services division for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said the deaf community’s lobbying for 911 texting has mostly been at the national level.
“The deaf community really, really wants it,” Rosenthal said. “Our hearing friends and family can just call 911, but we weren’t able to.”
Rosenthal said he once found himself driving on a rain-soaked highway when he witnessed a car ahead of him spin out and flip. Rosenthal, who is deaf, said he was unable to call for help. If text to 911 had been available, he could have reached emergency services. Fortunately, another driver called 911.
“It would be a very cool thing for us to be able to do that wherever we are,” he said.