How Not to Call 911: A Real World Example

True contributor Alexander Cohen and I had quite the discussion about the Canadian woman desperately trying to get police help when there was an intruder in her home.

Presumably she wanted to use text chat to contact the police rather than call on the phone to keep things quiet, and not draw attention from the intruder.

Let’s start with the story:

Help!

“I need help, he is going to come, he is in the house,” a woman typed to the police. The intruder wasn’t her only problem: intending to contact the Durham Regional Police Service in Ontario, Canada, she had instead found the live chat service for Durham Constabulary in England. The constabulary presumably wasn’t in a position to send its own officers in excess of 3,000 miles away to rescue the woman, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t help her: a worker in the agency’s control room reached out to the Canadian service, which dispatched officers to the chatter’s Ajax, Ont., home. A suspect was arrested and charged. (AC/CBC, Washington Post) …If the victim had done her research, she might have learned that it’s not recommended to use text chat to contact police in an emergency, because it’s too complicated.

Conundrum

Alexander’s original tagline indicated that other police departments needed to implement chat capabilities on their web sites. No, I said from the standpoint of being on our regional 911 Board, which helps fund our dispatch center: searching for a police web site to look for a “Chat” option is a terrible idea. As demonstrated in this case, the caller reached the wrong Durham police, which is a predictable failing when someone in a panic is trying to get help. She was quite lucky they had the ability to pass along her plea in a reasonable amount of time.

So what would be better?, he asked. Simple text messages. The U.S. is working to get all PSAPs — Public Safety Answering Points, aka the specific places 911 calls are answered — to accept text-to-911 calls. A lot of Americans have no idea that it’s even possible, but the FCC has rules about how such messages are to be handled.

It doesn’t require looking up an address. It doesn’t even require Internet access, and is built in to (all?) cell phones. It uses the same number as voice emergency calls.

When needed DO try to call 911 even if you don’t have cell service (say, you’re in a rural area): if any cell tower sees the call, it’s required to connect you to a PSAP if at all possible, even if you’re not that carrier’s customer. Even if your service has been disconnected for non-payment. Even if it’s an old phone with no service contract at all.

Not in the U.S.

But the lady in the story is from Canada. What are their procedures and rules?

Well, they’re totally confusing, which is a bad thing when it comes to getting help in an emergency!

First, they only offer text-to-911 for the “DHHSI community” — the “deaf, deafened, hard of hearing or speech impaired.” And only if you register in advance. And only if your phone has “T9-1-1” capability.

Then, to get help, you have to call 911 by voice (but don’t have to say anything): “the 9-1-1 call taker will receive an indicator that tells them to communicate with the caller via text messaging. The 9-1-1 call taker then initiates text messaging with the caller to address the emergency.”

So, if you’re a Canadian “DHHSI person” please, right now, get your phone registered in the program if you haven’t already. The time to do it is not when you have an emergency. Do not call 911 to “test” whether it works; check with your carrier instead.

I wonder what percentage of Canadian “DHHSI people” have registered already? My guess: less than 50 percent — probably much less. It’s a disaster in waiting, not to mention the need for those who are not “DHHSI persons.”

Really, Canada, you need to get with the program: enable text-to-911 for everyone. Pre-registering only specifically compatible phones is not the way to go. Not only every Canadian, but foreigners coming to Canada on holiday or business should be able to call and text 911 for emergencies.

As for other countries, I don’t know. I invite those with accurate knowledge to comment below with details about their country’s systems. (Is there an E.U. standard in this realm? Good question! A U.K. standard? I sure hope residents know.) Don’t guess, find out before you need help.

I doubt text-to-911 is fully rolled out to the entire U.S., but we’re working on it. Even my rural Colorado area has had it for several years.

Still, if at all possible it’s significantly better in an emergency to call if you can: that automatically transmits your GPS location so help can be sent your way, and it’s much faster for the call-taker to get information by voice. But texting has the advantage of working quite well on phones with low batteries, or a poor cell signal, and should be tried as a backup if necessary.

And, of course, when you need to be quiet.

Though the last time I called 911 I was shocked that my phone made a loud beeping sound as it connected, which I’m pretty sure is an alert in case it’s a pocket call in a completely not-emergency setting, which is depressingly common. If I was trying to call for help in (say) a robbery situation at a restaurant? Yikes! So the lady in the story above was definitely smart in that she was trying to get her help message out quietly.

Anyway, Alexander’s revised tagline is much more clear about how …unclear the situation really is.

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33 Comments on “How Not to Call 911: A Real World Example

  1. 813 has had text-to-PSAP for a few years, 727 rolled it out some time during the pandemic.

    (813 is Tampa area, 727 split off from 813 and covers Pinellas County, and western Pasco County.) The service is definitely expanding, even if not fast enough for comfort. -rc

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  2. In the U.K.: “The emergency SMS service lets deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired people in the UK send an SMS text message to the UK 999 service where it will be passed to the police, ambulance, fire rescue, or coastguard.” Why one has to register first and be physically impaired is beyond me.

    Just as bad as Canada. Wow. -rc

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    • For those living in the U.K. and presumably visitors as well, here is the procedure:

      “How to register your phone for text SMS.
      “Register your mobile phone with the service before an emergency happens. Simply text ‘Register’ to 999. Wait for the reply so you know you are registered, usually you are asked to confirm that you’d like to register and the original message wasn’t sent by mistake.”

      OK, not quite as bad as Canada! -rc

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      • Well I’m in the UK and I’ve just registered, I’m not deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired.

        There is a specific separate relay service for that as an alternative. Are you sure it is not this you were referring to?

        I agree though, there should not be a need to “opt in” for the service.

        Reply
  3. Here in San Bernardino County, CA, in case of emergency call 911. “If you can’t call, text.”

    Which emphasizes that voice calling is preferred. A fairly typical slogan lately. -rc

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  4. “When needed DO try to call 911” — apart from the other cases listed you’ll get through if the system is busy, basically your phone will do everything it can to connect you. Though if you are a long way from anywhere or your phone’s battery is dying a text WILL have a MUCH better chance of getting through.

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    • You have to service for 911 to work, if the network/tower is down. Several years ago I was driving for Lyft during the fires in Napa County and the fires (multiple) had destroyed all or most of the towers in upper Napa County and there was literally no service in downtown Napa or anywhere north. Had to go to American Canyon or Vallejo to get rides.

      Well, yes and no. Yes, obviously there has to be some tower that can pick up your 911 call, and that tower has to have an intact network to connect it to somewhere. But no, if you’re on (say) AT&T and its towers are destroyed, but there’s a T-Mobile tower that’s intact and in range and networked, that tower “has to” by law accept your 911 call and route it, even though you’re not a T-Mobile customer. -rc

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      • Randy, I was not trying to make 911 calls, just revaluation calls and waiting for a ping from Lyft to pick passengers. Also all towers for cell service north of Downtown Napa were burned or otherwise down.

        Bottom line is, when towers are destroyed a lot of planning and capacity is downright random. -rc

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  5. Important point regarding disconnected cell phones and 911. There used to be charities where you could donate your old, disconnected but still functional cell phone and they would give it to domestic violence victims to use in emergencies. I don’t know if that’s still a thing now that cell phones are more commonplace and most people have one.

    I sent them a couple of phones years ago, and haven’t heard anything about them lately. -rc

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  6. An important note about using an old cell phone to call 911: all US carriers are turning off their old 3G networks soon, and the 2G networks have been turned off for years. If your phone is old enough that it does not support 4G LTE, it will not be able to call 911 because there will no longer be any cell towers that are listening.

    I work for a company that has spent many years developing technologies to allow video calling (the caller cannot see the operator, but the operator can see whatever the caller sees) and higher-quality location sharing with PSAPs, including the ability for the operator to forward the video and location information to the responding police/fire/medical units. The technology has been deployed in a small handful of cities through a variety of pilot projects, but there are still too many barriers to entry. Every police officer I have spoken to about this technology agrees that it would be very useful for them, but PSAPs are very slow to implement technology, and users need to have the app installed on their mobile devices in order for it to be useful.

    Good reminder about 2 and 3G, and very interesting about the video. Heck, even still pictures could be a great help. PSAPs are often very underfunded, and have certain mandates that they have to spend money on (such as equipment to automatically map caller locations, and moving from circuit switching to Internet Protocol based systems), and I’d guess IP-based trunks will be necessary to implement the video. We’ll get there …but not as quickly as desired. -rc

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    • Here in Germany 3G has been shut down with the advent of 5G. It was however emphasised that 2G will stay available exactly for emergency situations. Meaning both access of any kind of old device as well as availability in cases of high traffic (disaster, shootouts, any other scenario in which many people want to communicate — not necessarily with the emergency services) because 2G would better handle more calls (IIRC).

      1G (analog voice only) had the equivalent bandwidth of 2.4kbps. 2G added texting, and bandwidth was about 50kbps. 3G added mobile Internet access at up to 2mbps from stationary devices, and about 384kbps on mobile devices. 4G has a peak capacity of 400Mbps, but since users share sector capacity, actual speed is in the 10s-100s of mbps. 5G is multiple gigabytes in bandwidth. Since voice calls are now handled digitally inside those bandwidth caps, many more calls can be handled at each step as you go up the generations. The only advantage of keeping 2G active is to accommodate very old phones. -rc

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  7. I live in Ontario and had heard about the woman in Durham Region’s situation before your mention. I do appreciate your looking into the situation in Canada more!! I have sent an email to my local Deaf Access Simcoe Muskoka to advise their clients, and other organizations they deal with, to pre-register. Let’s hope that will help others in the future.

    Very glad to have helped to spread the word. -rc

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  8. The problem with updating PSAPs to text-911 is that this capability, like many others, is achieved not by updating the PSAP but by using a third-party service. When this is done, the 911 call or text is transmitted over the Internet from the phone to the third-party and then back to the PSAP using special terminal equipment. This saves updating the PSAP with the necessary technology and keeps costs low.

    However, there have already been extensive 911 outages when the third-party service goes off-line. I don’t recall the name, off-hand, but a service in Colorado (I believe) had a several hour outage which left a random spread of localities without 911 service.

    Unfortunately, local law enforcement and fire departments do not get the funding necessary to keep their PSAP functioning much less funding for upgrades.

    Reply
    • No third party required at the PSAP I work at. It’s provided directly by the phone company that provides that inbound data trunks. But there are a LOT of moving parts and one can’t simply flip a switch to make it available.

      No third party for handling text-to-911 calls, I assume you mean. Our PSAP has a third party involved, but I haven’t looked into the mechanism of how that works. Probably should! I’ve been avoiding intruding since Covid; they don’t need extra worries. -rc

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  9. Those who feel they are unable to speak to the 999 operator can make them aware that they are in trouble by pressing ‘55’ on the phone keypad when prompted. Keep the line open and listen carefully to what the emergency operator says.

    For those who don’t know, 999 is the “911” of the U.K., and this tip only works on mobiles, not landlines. Thanks for passing this and the factcheck URL along, John. -rc

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  10. Where I am, reasonably good sized city, we got that ability less than 3 months ago. The official restrictions are:

    • Text-to-911 is not available if you are roaming
    • A text or data plan is required to place a Text-to-911


    I’d amend point one to May not be available while roaming, and point two is probably true, so thanks for both caveats. -rc

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  11. Another fun thing about the 911 system in Canada. If your area code is not a local one (I’m in The Yukon, so 867, and my phone is registered in Newfoundland, so 709), and you make a 911 call, your call may be connected to the 911 centre where your number is registered. Which complicates matters even further.

    As an FYI, I am a project manager and found this while researching my safety plan for a project. We routinely bring contractors and consultants in to do work for us, and they work in remote locations (The Yukon is quite large). And the risk that, if they get injured, may not connect to the local 911. In fact, the warning is on The Yukon government 911 web page at the top.

    Canada needs to a lot more than just help the “DHHSI” community.

    Wow, that’s pretty bad. I have to assume it’s universal across the U.S.: here the call is routed according to the estimation of the location of the phone. And that gets very detailed. For instance, if the tower can’t get your GPS location but the tower’s antenna is picking up your location from the south of the tower, rather than an antenna on the north of the same tower, the call can be routed to different PSAPs. That of course can get it wrong, but the worst case scenario is that the routing is “off by one” and the call can be transferred by the PSAP that gets the call. It’s “almost never” that it’s routed hundreds or thousands of miles away, though there are certain failure modes that could happen.

    Too, I imagine this is significantly more a problem in Europe, where a phone might be able to reach towers in several different countries, and I suspect the same mechanism works there. So, again, Canada really needs to get with it! These technical problems are already widely solved. -rc

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  12. Here in NZ, it’s just about the same as in the UK (except that our emergency number is “111” rather than “999” as in the UK).

    According to the police, it’s “An emergency TXT service for people with hearing or speech difficulties”.

    🙁

    And you have to register first. They’re behind the times. -rc

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    • I live in New Zealand as well. Another interesting tidbit our emergency system: when you call 111 the operator — who is at a Spark (formerly NZ telecom) facility in Auckland, no matter where in NZ you call from — will ask you if you need ‘fire, medical or police.’ If you are panicking and don’t know which option to choose, they will repeat the question. So far, I’ve only called to report emergencies I’ve witnessed as a third person, so I’m not sure what their response would be if I was panicked enough to not be able to reply to this question.

      They no doubt are well practiced at moving to different questions. -rc

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      • I’ve had to call 911 in USA a couple of times, and the phone was answered with them asking either “are you safe” or “what’s your emergency”.

        Now living in UK, i was driving down the motorway in the middle of the night and just managed to avoid hitting a truck tyre in the middle of my lane. I called 999 and was asked that question that you were, “do you require police, ambulance or fire department?” I said i don’t know. Whose department is it? I told them about the tyre and they repeated their question, who do you want to speak to. After going back and forth a little, eventually they put me through to the fire department who after hearing the problem transferred me to the police. I hope no one was killed by hitting that tyre during the time i was on the phone with the operator.

        Our PSAP dispatches them all: the call-takers take them for all agencies. Their first question is, “WHERE is your emergency?” because that’s the most important data point. If the call ends there, they can at least get someone headed that way. -rc

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  13. I would like to suggest What3Words.

    I use the service regularly and it is used by emergency services in several countries, including here in California. Very helpful to pinpoint a user’s exact location within a 3-meter square anyplace on Earth. The three-word location could be easily texted to the operator to get help quickly to the end-user’s precise location.

    As long as they understood what it was. Even though we have a LOT of rough land and plenty of jeeping and hiking in our county, I’ve never heard anyone use it here — I listen to the police, fire, and ambulance dispatches routinely. But I totally agree it’s a worthy tool, though location isn’t enough: they need to know what the emergency is so they know who and what to send. -rc

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    • W3W seems to be more used in the UK. Problem is, some misspelling (or misunderstanding) can lead to locations which are thousands of km away (can live with that, it’s obviously wrong) or just a mile or so away (which can be problematic especially if there’s a body of water or a ravine between you and what was understood to be your location). For example: likely.stage.sock vs. likely.stages.sock. More on that.

      Interesting. You can find me at purest.variance.insight. Or, wait, maybe it’s purist.variants.incite. Or is it…? -rc

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    • This assumes that the call center has a working internet connection all the way to the proprietary What3Words system. In case of a regional emergency (tsunami, hurricane, etc), this may not be true.

      Our state E911 call centers have paper maps that can be used as backup if the electronic systems go down.

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  14. For the E.U., there is a universal number for calls (112) and a universal number for text (114), both of which will connect with the nearest PSAP center in any country member of the E.U.

    Both go through the “antique” cell systems, to insure backwards compatibility (as far as I’m aware of, I don’t work that field).

    Interesting! And still way ahead of Canada…. -rc

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    • Unfortunately, not the whole EU seems to be doing that well. I tried to find that 114 for the Netherlands, and it did not come up anywhere. What did come up, is a document saying that you can text to 112 IF you first register (same as UK). And some other suggestions that hearing impaired people may be familiar with.

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  15. For a long time I’ve thought that world wide there should be a single number to call. Actually, computers are tools to help humans. And phones are computers. They should accept any reasonable input and connect.

    So, I think ALL phones should accept ALL codes [108 (India ?), 111 (NZ), 112 (EU), 911 (US, CA), and 999 (UK)] to call/text emergency services.

    Hopefully Randy won’t be too hard on me if there is something clearly wrong with that plan.

    It’s likely that “111” (for instance) is something else in places other than NZ. So it messes with what’s already set up there. -rc

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    • 000 in Australia, if you’re compiling a list 🙂 Though if you’re calling from a mobile (cell) phone, you can also use the EU standard 112.

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    • In the USA, 111 is commonly used by linesmen to get the number of the phone on which they dialed 111. The linesman clips the phone onto the wires (usually part of a 28-line cable) taps in 111 and gets a voice saying the phone number of that line. I know because at one point a linesman must have hooked two different bundles together — I had a forced party line with someone blocks away. The linesman who repaired the mistake had to check all 56 numbers.

      Of course that is not related to cell systems — but it is an alternate usage.

      That number varies across the U.S., as far as I can tell. As I had a relative who worked for the phone company, I was often aware of that number. It not only varied from place to place, I don’t recall it ever being 111. -rc

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  16. I think Jim has got a good point about using a single number everywhere but unfortunately in most cases it would probably be a major operation to change over and require both the old and new number to be valid for many years, and, as RC says, there are bound to be countries that use the existing code as part of a number. Here in Aus I know of several 99nn nnnn numbers so expect that there are 999n nnnn numbers.

    In Australia the emergency number is 000, and that may be a number that could be introduced with the least disruption elsewhere.

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  17. I kept my landline phone so that in case I ever had to call 911 they’d have my accurate address on their screen. I’m in a fairly well-off Chicago suburb so our 911 system is kept up-to-date.

    One day, a visitor had a medical emergency and I had to call 911. Although I had a cellphone in my pocket I went and got a cordless landline phone specifically to give 911 that precise location. The first thing they did was ask my address, then read it back and have me confirm it.

    That was the event that led me to “cut the cord” and drop my landline service.

    By the way, you can “port” your landline number into Google Voice for a one-time charge of $20, and then you can keep the phone number. Anyone who calls will get your voicemail recording and/or you can route the call to your cell. This costs nothing beyond the initial twenty bucks, unless you want to make outbound calls from your landline number. I had to port my number into my cellular account for about 5 minutes in order to then transfer it to Google because for some reason they only accept ported numbers from cellular carriers. This cost me an extra dollar for the SIM.

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  18. Most of PA has text to 911 enabled with no special requirements in place. Exceptions are 8 rural counties (3 of which haven’t even started on it) and Philadelphia county; the center of the largest city in the state.

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  19. It would not be technically difficult for phones to detect that the user is texting an emergency number (911, 112, 999, etc.) and send a first message that contains the phone’s GPS coordinates. It could be done with only a software change. Older phones might not have this capability, but eventually their owners will upgrade them.

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