Text or call? When it comes to 911, numbers show people in Denver prefer to call

Denver's 911 center averaging just 3 texts per day

DENVER — About a year after Denver upgraded its 911 center to receive texts in case of an emergency, numbers show only about 3 people are texting each day on average.

The city of Denver began receiving 911 texts in July of 2016. Since then they have received about 700 texts to 911 compared to about 600,000 calls, according to data obtained by Denver7.

"I think it's working well, except not enough people know we have text to 911 available,” said Athena Butler, the executive director of Denver’s 911 center.  “We want to make sure we get the word out that text to 911 is available in Denver.”

How does it work?

Texting 911 is simple – just open up a new text, just like you would to send to a friend, and in the “To” field just type in 911.

 

 

In your message, dispatchers ask that you describe your emergency and provide your detailed location right away.

In the 911 center, dispatchers receive emergency texts on their computer screens. They type responses, which show up on the texter’s phone just like any regular text. Dispatchers sent test texts for Denver7 so we could watch how it works:

The texts are then assigned to emergency responders and prioritized based on their potential severity, just like any other call. 911 officials say there is no difference in response time between calls and texts.

Dispatchers do have a harder time pinpointing someone’s location when they text instead of call. If a texter does not provide his or her location, dispatchers can only pinpoint the nearest cell tower, which could be blocks away from where the person is actually located.

When should you text?

The director of Denver’s 911 center says dispatchers always prefer to receive calls rather than texts when calling is possible.

“[We prefer calls] because we can hear what's going on in the background, we can hear the inflection in your voice and emotion, and we take all of that into account to determine what priority to give police to respond,” Butler said.

But there are a number of situations when it may make sense to text, including:

  • If you’re in a sensitive situation where you don’t want someone else to hear you calling 911, such as a domestic violence incident;
  • If you are hearing-impaired;
  • If you’re unable to place a phone call because of problems with cellular service;
  • If you call 911 and are placed on hold but you are dealing with a life-threatening emergency (dispatchers ask that you stay on the line but also send a text, as all 911 hang-up calls have to be returned)

“We’ve had some robbery suspects who were identified because people were nearby and they texted us to tell us where they were,” Butler said. “We've had incidents where people thought someone was trying to break into their home, and instead of making additional noise, they sent us a text and so we kept them on their device texting back and forth until officers arrived.”

Denver7 wanted to show specific examples of people who were helped by texting 911. But Denver Department of Safety officials said 911 texts are confidential unless the texter gives permission to have them released – just like the audio of a 911 call -- and officials said no one granted permission to have their texts released to the media.

When CAN’T you text?

Denver’s 911 center cannot receive texted photos or videos. If you do try to send a video or picture, 911 officials say you will receive a “bounce back” message in response to let you know your message was not received by dispatchers.

And while most of the communities in the Denver metro area can successfully text 911 and reach dispatchers, not every emergency communication center in the state is equipped yet to receive texts.

According to the Colorado 911 Resource Center, about 80% of Colorado’s population lives in an area where they can text 911. But only 42% of the state’s geographical area has text-to-911 coverage.

If you try to text 911 in an area where it is not equipped, your phone provider will send you a bounce-back message that shows your message did not go through.

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