Faced With An Emergency And Can’t Call 911? In Butte County, You Can Text

Jul 20, 2020

Did you know that you can text 911 in an emergency? Butte County CHP was a relatively early adopter of the 911 texting service, which is increasingly being implemented by other dispatch centers.

Though calling 911 is still preferred, the service makes emergency help more readily available to those with hearing or speech difficulties, and in situations where calling isn’t possible. 

NSPR’s Ken Devol spoke with CHP Officer Frank Valdepena about the history of the service, how it works and when it should and shouldn’t be used.

Here are highlights from their conversation. 

Interview Highlights

On when the program was adopted and how much it’s used

CHP first adopted this in 2015. Butte County was actually one of the first to implement it, here at the CHP Chico. It was started I believe in November of 2015. And that's about the time that we started utilizing it.

The thing about it is we receive here about four to five text to 911 calls a month. But back in 2019, cell phone calls alone, we took 5.4 million, that's statewide, and a total of 4,500 texts to 911 statewide. So I think it's fairly known. But what we ask is that if you can call, call. If you have to, text to 911.

On downsides to the text to 911 feature and what dispatchers will ask

There's an issue with the caller's location. So when you text to 911, it does not give the caller's location. So the caller will need to give their location. Although there are situations where it's either too dangerous or impossible to call and they have to text. And sometimes — we had an incident here not too long ago, actually, I won't go into specifics about what was going on — but we did have a 911 text to call, and they didn't know their location. They were being driven. And eventually, we did find their location. So what the dispatchers have the capability of doing is sending a request for their location. But that would mean that the caller needs to accept the request. And that's the same thing for 911 voice call as well. So you know, the issue is location. 

Once a dispatcher gets the 911 text to call, they're going to ask where the emergency is occurring, who is involved, what is occurring, or has occurred, and when did the incident occur? And they're also going to ask questions like are there weapons involved? Or drugs or alcohol involved? So we want the callers to be ready to answer those as well.

On how the service works

If you find yourself in an emergency, or it's too dangerous or even impossible to call 911, and you use text to call 911, they will receive it immediately. And it'll come up on their screen as a texted 911 call. And I kind of already went over kind of what the dispatchers would ask. The other issue with that too is the dispatcher will be using a keyboard. There's kind of a two-step process. So they'll have to get the information, they'll have to type the information once and then send it, so there's just a little bit of a delay in that. But otherwise, it's immediate.

On the need for this kind of service, and how to use it

There is a need for it definitely. Text to 911 will ensure the majority of Deaf or hard of hearing or speech impaired people will have direct, immediate access to 911. 

We also want the public to know that when you're reporting a life or death emergency, we prefer you to call 911. You are encouraged to call if you can, and text when you cannot.

And when you're reporting an emergency at home, or if you have a landline available, it's requested that you use that landline because there are advantages to using a landline. Number one, the dispatcher will instantly know the location of the caller. The call will either be taken by a local police fire or a fire dispatcher. And then help can be immediately sent. There's some other issues too — poor reception due to the location or a lack of service with the caller's cell phone provider could result in what's called a bounce back message. And basically, that message will bounce back to the caller and say that 911 is unavailable. 

I also want to mention that texting 911 with a false report is a crime. But if you accidentally send a text to 911, we asked that you text 911 again or call 911 and inform them of the accident. And then we ask that you do not text and drive. Do not use abbreviations, emojis, pictures or slang. And always stay calm and try and answer each question in a timely manner. But you know, we know situations arise, like the one we talked about earlier. And so our dispatchers are trained, they're professional, and they get the job done.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.