Texting 911: Push for statewide service passes General Assembly

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In an emergency, most people dial 911 for help.

But more emergency centers are taking ‘calls’ via text.

Now, lawmakers are backing a push to expand the service across the commonwealth.

While it isn’t meant to replace phone calls, it is meant to give people another way to reach out for help when safety concerns or disabilities make calling difficult.

It’s called Text-to-9-1-1.

It’s something Hanover County Emergency Communications has been doing since 2015.

“It’s really very similar to a voice call,” said Cheryl Buchanan, manager of the center. “We’re just typing back and forth to one another.”

She said to remember this phrase — Call if you can. Text if you can’t.

Buchanan said people with speech and hearing difficulties have benefited from the service. She said there are additional situations where texting can be better than calling.

“If your home is being broken into, you don’t want to give away your location. Text would certainly be appropriate in that instance. We’ve had some other localities that have mentioned a lot of active shooter situations,” she said.

Right now, 31 of Virginia’s emergency centers process texts, according to VITA. Another 11 — including Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico — plan to start soon.

But a bill that just passed through the House and the Senate would make it mandatory for all public safety answering points to give people the option to text by July 1, 2020.

It might cost localities to upgrade their system, but there is grant funding available.

Buchanan said since Hanover implemented Text-to-9-1-1, they have not been flooded with texts. Most requests for service still come by phone call, as expected.

There were 75 texts in 2016 and 90 in 2017.

How to Text 9-1-1:

1. Enter “911” in the “To” or “Recipient” field of your text message (no dashes in 911).

2. Text in simple words – no photos, videos, abbreviations or slang.

3. The first text should be short to include the location of the emergency and who you need: police, fire or ambulance.

4. Be as specific as possible when providing your location. Provide as much of the following information as possible:

  • Exact address to include unit/apartment number and city
  • Business name
  • The names of both streets at the nearest intersection
  • Landmarks
  • Push the send button
  • Answer questions and follow instructions from the 9-1-1 call taker

This bill would pave the way for another future change to 9-1-1 service in the commonwealth.

SB513, which also passed the House and Senate, establishes requirements for the implementation of next generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) service.

By July 1, 2023, the 9-1-1 Services Board would be required to develop and implement NG9-1-1 transition plans to migrate public service answering points and originating service providers from E-911 to NG9-1-1.

Both bills now head to the governor’s desk.