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When Should You Text 911 for an Emergency?

We all know to call 911 in an emergency. But some of us may be hard of hearing or speech impaired, and some emergencies don't allow for a safe phone call conversation with police dispatchers. So this week, Los Angeles County rolled out its "Text-to-911" service, giving Burbank, Glendale, Long Beach, and Los Angeles residents the ability to text 911 in the case of an emergency.

But texting 911 is not meant to entirely replace calling 911 as the primary contact for emergency services, and there are some caveats to texting 911. Here's what you need to know.

Federal Emergency Services

As the Federal Communications Commission notes, text-to-911 services are only available in certain locations, so you should always first try to call 911 if possible during an emergency. While FCC rules require all wireless carriers and text messaging apps to deliver emergency texts to jurisdictions that request them, that coverage is far from universal, so the FCC has three tips for people in need of emergency services:

  1. Always contact 911 by making a voice call, if you can.
  2. If you are deaf, hard of hearing or speech disabled, and text-to-911 is not available, use a TTY or a telecommunications relay service, if possible.
  3. Remember that in most cases you cannot reach 911 by sending a text message.

L.A. 911

Sgt. Daniel Suttles, spokesman for the Glendale Police Department, echoed those sentiments to the Los Angeles Times: "Phone communication is still the primary way we want you to communicate because it's more reliable." And in an emergency setting, reliability is essential. Suttles also told the Times that emergency texts to 911 are not always delivered instantaneously -- some can take up to several minutes depending on your location and the quality of the cell phone coverage, and, at least for now, text-to-911 is not available when a person is roaming.

If you must text 911, officials urge people to use plain language, avoid abbreviations, and hold off on the photos or videos, since those can't be received by dispatchers.

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