In an emergency situation, calling 911 is the preferred way to reach emergency dispatchers.

However, in cases where calling 911 is not an option, local residents now have a second lifeline: text messaging.

Bob Dowd, director of Lebanon County Emergency Management Services, said there are several scenarios where a person may not be able to call 911 when they need assistance during an emergency.

  • When someone can’t speak or is unable to hear clearly due to external noises.
  • When someone has a speech or hearing impairment, or is having a medical emergency that renders them incapable of speaking.
  • When making noise may endanger the caller, such as a home invasion/robbery, or situations involving domestic violence or an abduction.

“This is not a replacement for calling 911 when you can call,” said Dowd. “That’s probably the most important piece of context to capture – that texting to 911 is something you can do when you don’t have another option. It is just another way for residents to get in touch with us.”

Dowd provided LebTown the steps an individual should take when attempting to reach the 911 call center via text messaging in situations that warrant it.

How to Send a 911 Text Message

  1. Create a new text message or conversation.
  2. Type 911 in the “To” or “Recipient” field.
  3. Describe your location: Include the address and municipality (township or borough).
  4. Describe the situation: Include what type of emergency help is needed.
  5. Send the text message.

Dowd emphasized that Step 3 – providing your address and municipality (township or borough) – is of utmost importance.

“If you text that you are at 123 First St., there are, I believe, without looking at a map, numerous first streets throughout Lebanon County,” said Dowd. “So knowing where you are specifically located is a valuable piece of information for us to provide to first responders.”

While noting that texting is another tool in the arsenal of emergency services personnel, Dowd stressed that calling is still preferred over texting.

“One limitation that text messaging has and why I keep focusing on why it’s important to still call if you can is because texting is very slow,” said Dowd. “It’s slow for us to get your information. It’s slow for us to give you instructions, if necessary, and it’s slow for us to get feedback on those instructions.”

Another limitation is that only one entity can be included in the text conversation at a time. “There is no such thing as group texting when sending a text to 911,” added Dowd.

Dowd said readers should know that if they are ever in a situation where they need to text-to- 911 that they should place a call if they do not receive a return message from emergency personnel.

“If your phone doesn’t have service, texting is not going to change that,” warned Dowd. “That’s something to be aware of. If you don’t get a response, you should try calling. If no response comes back, you should never assume the text message went through. If you don’t get a response or hear from us asking what is your emergency, the text probably did not go through.”

Dowd told LebTown text messaging for an emergency has been utilized once since the system went live in Lebanon County on May 10.

“The individual had called in and was afraid they would be unable to continue to talk given the proximity to the danger they were in, so our operator told them to hang up and send a text to us, which is one of the scenarios as we discussed where texting was appropriate,” said Dowd.

Dowd noted the new communication method for 911 in Lebanon County was rolled out slowly without a lot of fanfare for a reason.

“It was one of those things where we wanted to turn it on and let it burn for a little bit,” said Dowd, who added the system was thoroughly tested by county officials before it went live. “At this point I think it is safe to say it is working as expected.”

Dowd said the new texting system is mandated by law and paid through state funding, meaning no taxpayer dollars were used to implement the technology into the county’s 911 operations.

A Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency map and a recent PEMA social media post indicates that Lebanon and Northumberland counties are the 62nd and 63rd counties to introduce text-to-911 capabilities.

“This is a great thing but we are not unique – this is part of the 911 evolution,” said Dowd. “Texting used to be a novelty way to communicate but it has become a primary way to communicate – especially for the younger generations. We have to evolve to meet changing needs.”

Dowd said that the same principles for using 911 in an emergency are also applicable to texting county dispatchers.

“Texts need to be 911-specific,” said Dowd. “Every county gets calls from people that really aren’t. I don’t want to say anything bad about people calling, but there are situations that dictate and common sense would say this is not an emergency and you should not be dialing 911 for that call.”

One example Dowd gave was a person needing transportation to a hospital in a non-emergency situation.

“People call 911 for an ambulance because they do not want to pay for a cab, but that’s not a 911 type of call,” said Dowd. “ Also, being taken by an ambulance is not going to get you seen any sooner once you arrive at the hospital. Taking an ambulance will not skip your place in line at the emergency room just because you arrive in one.”

On the other hand, Dowd said that if people believe there’s a serious emergency, then they should call or text 911.

“911 calls are always situational,” said Dowd. “If there is a belief that there is an emergency that requires police, fire or an ambulance, then a person should call or text 911.”

As far as the future is concerned, Dowd said the advent of text-to-911 is only the beginning as technology continues to evolve.

“Communications technology is evolving and this is just the first step of more things that are coming down the road,” said Dowd. “Video conversations with 911 centers, the concept of being able to do a video conversation and then have that video handed off to a responder is not too far out of reach. New technologies are always coming about and we’re taking advantage of them whenever we can.”

Text-to-911 Reminders

  • A text or data plan is required to place a text to 911.
  • Text-to-911 conversations cannot include more than one person. Do not send your emergency text to anyone other than 911.
  • Do not use abbreviations or emojis.
  • Voice calls are real-time communication and Text-to-911 is not. As with all text messages, text messages to 911 may take longer to receive, may arrive out of order, or may not be received at all.
  • 911 call takers will not be able to hear any background noise that could help with assisting during the emergency.
  • Location information will be limited to the cell tower that your cellphone is communicating through. A 911 telecommunicator won’t automatically know where you are.
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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...