Why can’t you text 911?

Texting 911 in an emergency may seem like an obvious solution in our mobile-focused world. However, while texting is convenient and ubiquitously available, there are some important reasons why texting 911 is not supported across much of the United States.

The Technical Challenges of Texting 911

There are several key technical challenges that make supporting text messages to 911 difficult:

  • Location accuracy – When you call 911 from a cell phone, location data from cell towers and GPS provides an approximate location to dispatchers. Texts do not provide the same detailed location information.
  • Text message load – During an emergency, call volumes already climb dramatically. Adding text volumes would further strain emergency response systems.
  • Text message limits – Most text messages have a 160 character limit, which provides limited information for dispatchers compared to a phone call.
  • One-way communication – Text messaging does not allow real-time interaction between the dispatcher and the individual seeking help.

While some 911 call centers have the capability to receive texts, it is not yet available in most regions. Overcoming the technical obstacles requires significant coordinated upgrades to both cell networks and 911 center equipment.

The History of Texting 911

The idea of texting 911 is not new. In fact, the first text sent to 911 occurred accidentally in 2001. However, purposeful texting of 911 did not begin until the late 2000s.

Here is a brief timeline of key developments in texting 911:

  • 2007 – The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) began examining text-to-911 capabilities.
  • 2010 – Verizon became the first carrier to provide text-to-911 service for select PSAPs.
  • 2014 – The four major U.S. carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile) voluntarily committed to providing text-to-911.
  • 2014 – The FCC adopted rules requiring all wireless carriers and providers of text messaging applications to support texting to 911 capability.
  • 2016 – Major U.S. carriers reported that they have text-to-911 available across their networks. However, many 911 call centers still lack the upgrades needed to receive texts.

While text-to-911 is now technically feasible across most of the country, implementation at 911 public safety answering points continues to lag behind. As of 2022, approximately 98 percent of the nation’s PSAPs had text capability. But many are still in the early stages of rollout.

The Pros and Cons of Texting 911

Here are some of the key pros and cons to weigh when considering texting 911 as an emergency communication method:


  • Silent contact – Texting allows discreet contact when making a voice call could escalate a situation or endanger the caller.
  • Communication barriers – Texting overcomes communication barriers for those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech impairment.
  • Multi-tasking – Texts can be sent while driving, running or doing other activities.
  • Bridging communication – Text-to-911 capability bridges the gap between outdated 911 systems and modern communication preferences.


  • No location data – As highlighted earlier, location accuracy and tracking is limited compared to voice calls.
  • Delayed response – Texts lack the real-time interaction of voice calls and may delay time-sensitive emergency response.
  • Character limits – Details may be missed due to length limits and abbreviations in texts.
  • No callback option – Dispatchers cannot call back text senders if additional information is needed.

When weighed side-by-side, the limitations and lack of text-to-911 availability in many regions mean it should not be relied on as a primary way of requesting emergency assistance. However, text-to-911 can serve as a lifeline for situations when a voice call is not possible or safe.

When is it Appropriate to Text Instead of Call 911?

Due to the limitations outlined above, the general guideline is to always call 911 by voice first if possible. However, there are some situations where texting may be the better option or only option available:

  • When in danger – If making a voice call could escalate a dangerous situation, a silent text may be safer and prevent harm.
  • When speech is difficult – People who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech impairment can use text to communicate with dispatchers.
  • When discretion is important – Texts avoid publicly disclosing sensitive information in environments like classrooms or offices.
  • When multi-tasking – Texting allows contacting 911 while driving, running or doing other activities where talking is difficult.
  • Network issues – If cellular networks are overwhelmed, texts may go through when calls won’t.

Before texting 911, the most important step is to verify the capability exists in your region by contacting your local 911 center. Most will provide information on their website about text-to-911 availability.

Will Texting 911 Ever Replace Calling?

While text-to-911 will likely continue expanding as an option, it is unlikely that texting will replace calling 911 any time soon for several reasons:

  • No location data – Landline and mobile calls provide much more accurate location data to dispatchers compared to texts.
  • Real-time communication – Voice calls allow detailed back-and-forth in real-time between the caller and dispatcher compared to slow texts.
  • Call volume – If all 911 contacts switched to text, the flood of messages would overwhelm response systems not equipped for massive text volumes.
  • Accessibility – Voice calls are much more universally accessible across ages and technology comfort levels compared to texting proficiency.

For these reasons, voice calls likely will remain the primary channel for contacting 911 for the foreseeable future. Text-to-911 should be viewed as a supplemental option but not a wholesale replacement in most regions. Some next generation 911 systems in development may allow real-time text chat integrated with voice calls. But widespread implementation is still years away.

Steps to Successfully Text 911

If you face an emergency where texting 911 is your best option, here are some steps to follow for the best chance of success:

  1. Confirm your area has text-to-911 capability. Check with your local 911 center.
  2. Enter 911 as the recipient and give your exact address in the first text.
  3. Keep texts short, concise and without abbreviations or slang.
  4. Stay alert for return texts from the dispatcher.
  5. Answer questions and follow instructions provided by the dispatcher.
  6. Don’t delete the text thread until given the OK – it serves as a record of the incident.

Following these tips will help provide the critical information needed and maintain contact with the dispatcher assisting you.

Public Education About Text-to-911

One of the challenges of expanding text-to-911 is educating the public on proper usage and availability. Most Americans grew up being taught to call 911 and are unaware that texting is an option in some areas. Targeted public education can address this knowledge gap through:

  • Community engagement – Partnering with schools, community centers, elderly services and other stakeholders to teach text-to-911 access as an option.
  • On-device cues – Smartphones can give reminders that text-to-911 is available and link to local availability.
  • 911 center outreach – 911 call centers should actively advertise text-to-911 locally on websites & social media.
  • Carrier engagement – Wireless carriers can promote text-to-911 through account messaging and materials.

With greater awareness and education, the public can better understand when texting 911 may be their best option during an emergency. 911 call centers also need to be sure dispatchers are fully trained on protocols for managing text interactions.

The Future of Texting 911

While progress has been gradual, text-to-911 is likely to continue expanding as a service. Here are some key factors that will shape its future:

  • NG911 implementation – Next generation 911 systems will make supporting text messaging more seamless and integrated.
  • Emerging technologies – 5G networks, smart devices, AI and new apps may open new possibilities for emergency communications.
  • Public adoption – As the public becomes more comfortable with texting 911, utilization and expectations for support will continue growing.
  • Regulatory mandates – The FCC and other regulators may issue new mandates for text-to-911 support at 911 centers.

Ultimately, text-to-911 adoption comes down to overcoming technical obstacles, upgrading infrastructure, and educating both the public and 911 professionals. Progress takes time but the long-term goal should be enabling the widest array of communication options when lives are at stake.


Texting 911 offers important benefits but also key limitations compared to voice calls. While the capability is expanding, most regions cannot yet support emergency texting. Voice calls remain the most reliable way to contact 911 when in need. But texting provides a critical alternative when making a voice call is difficult or dangerous. Understanding when to call vs. text 911, and how to do so properly, can help ensure everyone can access emergency services.

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