A new lifeline

New Text-to-911 service goes live across Minnesota

MARSHALL — We’ve all been taught to call 911 in an emergency. But what happens if talking on the phone isn’t possible, or if making a call might be dangerous?

Minnesotans now have another choice. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Emergency Communication Networks has started a new service that allows people to contact 911 with a text message.

“The principle behind it is to give someone an option if they can’t speak on the phone,” said Sgt. Eric Wallen of the Lyon County Sheriff’s Department.

Wallen said Text-to-911 will help members of the public in a couple of ways. First, it can help people who have hearing loss or speech impairments make emergency calls. Text-to-911 can also help people in situations where they need to be quiet to stay safe. For example, Wallen said, a person reporting domestic violence, or who is in a home invasion situation, might not be able to risk speaking on the phone.

Making a voice call to 911 is still the fastest way to get help, Wallen said.

“If you can, by all means call,” he said. But if a voice call isn’t possible, the new text service offers an alternative.

The Text-to-911 service officially went live Tuesday. It’s now available throughout Minnesota, Wallen said.

People can use Text-to-911 by entering the numbers 911 into the “To” field of their text message, entering their exact location and the nature of their emergency into the body of the text, and then sending the text. A dispatcher will respond, also by text.

Emergency dispatchers can’t find the location of a person sending a text as accurately as they can with a voice call, Wallen said, so it’s important to give an exact address. People using Text-to-911 should also keep their texts short and simple — there’s a 160-character limit for 911 messages — and not use emojis or slang.

And just like with phone calls, it’s illegal to text 911 with false reports, Wallen said.

There are some other limitations to the Text-to-911 service, Wallen said. The service requires a text or data plan to use, and emergency texts won’t get through if you are roaming. There are also no language translation services for 911 texts. Text-to-911 should only be used if it’s not safe to make a voice call, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety said.

More information on Text-to-911 can be found online, at https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/ecn/programs/911/Pages/text-to-911.aspx.