Calling for help just got a 21st-century upgrade in Palm Beach County. On Monday, the county announced its 911 system can now accept texts.
Palm Beach County officials still ask that you call if you can, and only text if you can't. If you do text 911, you type 911 into the box and begin a conversation with a 911 operator immediately.
"There shouldn’t be any delay. It's integrated into our system now. It’s not like it’s sitting on a different screen or on a cell phone. The call taker sees it on the screen just like all you would normally see with a 911 call," says Palm Beach County 911 Director Chuck Spalding.
Officials caution that messages to 911 may take longer to receive, may get out of order, or may not be received at all.
"The purpose of text 911 is for certain scenarios," says Dan Koenig of Palm Beach County 911. "Number one would be the deaf community. There are several situations when your voice may give away your location and put you in a dangerous situation, examples that would be is a home invasion, domestic violence situation."
"For many years up until now, if there was an emergency that happened, you either had to wait for someone else to call. So it’s this huge win and the deaf community is really excited to feel equality," says Director of Deaf Services Beth Wagmeister.
Text 911 does come with a few rules: Group texts, pictures and emojis are not allowed, and right now it can only accept messages in English.
Here's another important thing to know: You should text your location, as exactly as you can.
"What happens when you text, we know the cell tower sector that you’re associated with but we do not know your location," says Spalding.
That’s how the 911 call system currently works. Spalding tells Contact 5 that’s because the Federal Communications Commission told call centers across the country they need to have text abilities at some point, but didn't make any location accuracy requirements. It's something Contact 5 investigated last month.
"It’s a national issue. It’s not that local call centers are not implementing something, it’s not available," said Spalding.
So, until lawmakers and cellphone carriers decide to upgrade. local call centers can only do so much.