For the first time, Minnesotans can send a text message to 911 during an emergency when calling for help is not an option, state authorities announced Tuesday.
The statewide service, known as “Text-to-911,” went live Tuesday morning and will provide a connection to emergency services for people who are deaf or unable to speak. It could also help crime victims caught in dangerous situations — such as home invasions, domestic assaults or active shooter incidents — in which speaking on the telephone could put them in greater danger.
“This will save lives,” said Aaron Gutzke, executive director of ThinkSelf Inc., a St. Paul-based nonprofit that provides education and advocacy for deaf adults. “Imagine someone broke into your house in the middle of the night. You would want to be able to text 911 and say, ‘Someone is in my house.’ ”
State officials said the service will have a particular benefit for the estimated 1 million Minnesotans who are deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing, and have long sought an alternative to calling 911.
To use the new service, people type 911 into the number field, and then type the nature of the emergency and their exact location in the body of the text message.
Officials emphasized that people should use the new service only when they cannot safely make a voice call. That’s because texting does not provide precise location information and because there can be a small time lag before a text is received by a 911 dispatch center. At a demonstration of the new technology Tuesday, the delay between sending and receiving a text was 20 to 40 seconds.
In addition, they said, emergency dispatchers prefer voice calls so they can get cues from background noises and vocal inflections, and are likely to ask if they can respond to the sender with a voice call.
Since its inception 50 years ago, the 911 system has been dangerously out of reach for people who are deaf. They would often rely on friends, neighbors and even strangers to call for help during an emergency. Some can call 911 through an online video relay service, which connects the caller to a live interpreter at a call center. But connecting to an interpreter can take minutes, putting callers who are deaf at greater risk.
The unequal access to emergency services had even raised civil rights questions. In February 2016, the National Association for the Deaf and three individuals filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Arizona, alleging that the state and local government’s failure to provide text to 911 services was discriminatory. They claimed they could not use 911 outside their homes or in areas without high-speed internet access.
“This is a fundamental civil rights issue,” said Christian Vogler, director of the Technology Access program at Gallaudet University, a school in Washington, D.C., for people who are deaf. “Not being able to contact 911 on their own in a life-and-death situation would impede on people’s ability to live independently, and prevent them from leading lives that are functionally equivalent to those who are hearing.”
Of the 6,400 emergency call centers nationwide, only about 15 percent have the capability to respond to text messages. In other states, the service has been rolled out sporadically, in different counties and cities, creating some confusion over its availability.
Officials with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety took a different approach, working with local agencies to ensure the service was deployed statewide at the same time. It took nearly a year of rigorous testing, at all of Minnesota’s 104 emergency dispatch centers, before the service was made available on Tuesday, officials said.
Officials said the new service is unlikely to result in a major change in 911 use overall. In places where Text-to-911 has been implemented, only about 1 to 2 percent of the emergency calls have been text messages, while the rest are still voice calls.
Nearly 3 million 911 calls are made in Minnesota each year.