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You Can Text To 911 In Snohomish County, But Please No Emoticons

Flickr Photo/ (CC-BY-NC-ND)
A woman uses her smartphone.

The young woman was hiding in her closet upstairs.

She had called 911 because someone had broken into her home. She spoke very quietly.

That was the first 911 call that Laura Caster, the E-911 manager for Snohomish County, heard.

“That could have been a situation where she might have been less at risk by texting,” Caster told KUOW's Kim Malcolm.

Snohomish County is the second county in Washington state to implement text-to-911. Kitsap County was the first. (King County is exploring the possibility.)

It’s a nascent program at 911 centers across the country, and not always reliable. Officials insist that people should call 911 if they can, in part because it’s harder to discern a person’s location from their text message.  

But for people who are a situation where talking would reveal their hiding spot, texting is a good alternative, Caster said. “For example in domestic violence situations, possibly in active shooter situations,” she said.

Caster said Snohomish became interested when it saw that 911 centers across the country were implementing a text-to-911 system.

“And how they were not being overwhelmed by the number of texts, and how they were able to offer it to the deaf and hearing impaired to give them direct access,” she said.

She said there have been four times so far in Snohomish County when texting has helped someone connect with emergency responders.

Responders ask that people include their address and their situation in a text message.

If a text doesn’t go through, the Federal Communications Commission says the person should receive a bounce-back text urging them to call.

The sender may receive a message, something like, “Please make a voice call to 911. There is no text service to 911 available at this time.” The bounce-back text message has hit snags in Snohomish County, however, further emphasizing the importance of calling if possible.

Year started with KUOW: 2013