Limestone County 911 center first agency in North Alabama to provide ‘Text to 911’ ability


A person types a text on a phone (file photo)

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — Cellphone carriers across the nation are now capable of supporting text-to-911 services, and now Limestone County 911 is providing the service, but it comes with a warning.

The ability to text 911 is something the FCC passed new rules forcing cellphone companies to make all devices capable of doing 911 text calls last year, now agencies like Limestone County 911 are rolling out the service.

“Call if you can, text if you can’t,” – RV White, Limestone County 911

Supporters of the service say the ability to text instead of making a voice call will make it easier for people who can’t physically speak or are in a dangerous situation where they must remain quite to get important information to emergency crews.

Limestone County 911 director RV White confirmed the service is up and working at their 911 call center. He wants people to realize texts to 911 should be used as your last option and a traditional voice call is still recommended.

“Call if you can, text if you can’t,” White says. “We want people to realize this service does not replace our traditional voice calls and should only be used in a situation when there is absolutely no other way to make a voice call,” White added.

White says if a person sends a text to 911 in Limestone County right now, that is just like making a 911 voice call and treated to the same degree of seriousness.

“This is not something to test or joke around with,” White says. “We treat this very seriously and when it comes to life or death there is no room for messing around on your phone,” White added.

Fun Fact: The first implementation of 911 was in Haleyville, Ala. in January, 1968.

 Several agencies across the country have  rolled out the text to 911 ability in recent months. In Minnesota, Montana, Texas and Washington state, for example, several 911 centers all use the text to 911 system.  Black Hawk County, Iowa in 2009 became the first 911 center to accept texts, according to the national organization representing the 911 call centers.

But there are challenges. Each communication center will be forced to train staff on how to handle the text communications install new equipment.  Another big hurdle will be making sure surrounding communities have compatible technology in case a call comes from a person crossing jurisdictions.

Emergency managers in Madison County say text to 911 is not available and there are serious concerns with the service. Due to patchy cell phone text messaging services, emergency managers worry an emergency text may never actually go through to the 911 call center, delaying response times.

Text-to-911 will be a complement to, not a substitute for, voice calls to 911 services, and consumers should always make a voice call to 911 during an emergency if they can, according to the FCC.

(WHNT file)
(WHNT file)

In addition, to help eliminate consumer confusion while text-to-911 capability is being phased-in across the country, the major carriers have committed to provide an automatic “bounce back” text message to notify consumers if their attempt to reach 911 via text message was unsuccessful because this service is not yet available in their area. Such a message would instruct the recipient to make a voice call to a 911 center. The four carriers will fully implement this “bounce back” capability across their networks by June 30, 2013.

Limestone County 911 Center employees have worked since late last year to add the 911 texting service. White says they did not need to add additional equipment because their system in place to assist the hard of hearing already has the texting capability built-in.