San Francisco Rolls Out Text-to-911 Option

Those unable to speak on the phone during an emergency can now send a text message for help.

San Franciscans can now send text messages to 911 from their mobile phones when it’s unsafe for them to place a voice call, or they are unable to, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management announced this month.

“If you can call 911, that is what you should do,” Mary Ellen Carrol, executive director of SFDEM, said in a statement. “But sometimes it is not safe to verbally call.”

SFDEM started live testing the emergency text message service in February, but it was initially only publicized to communities of people with hearing or speech impairments and to domestic violence organizations. During the testing phase, dispatchers answered 125 live text messages.

Francis Zamora, an SFDEM spokesperson, told SF Weekly it’s important to keep emergency text messages short and simple, and to initially state if you’re requesting assistance from police, firefighters, or an ambulance.

“We want people to be very explicit when they’re first texting … and list the location, and what you need,” he said. “While we do have a work-around technology to determine the location, that takes longer.”

For now, the system is English-only, which Zamora said had to do with the aging technology 911 sits on.

“The lines (the text messages) have to travel on don’t allow for special characters, and more advanced information,” Zamora said — which means the system doesn’t support pictures, emojis, or non-Latin characters. “Throughout most of the country, 911 is on 1970s technology.”

SFDEM also advises callers to keep text messages shorter than 160 characters.  Longer messages may be automatically broken up and delivered to 911 as a stream of separate messages, but their delivery may be less reliable.

“It’s kind of a best attempt service. If a message gets lost or doesn’t come to 911, we wouldn’t know,” Zamora said. “That’s why we want you to keep it short.”

Last year, Santa Clara County and Concord also rolled out emergency text messages services. Implementation is slowly ramping up across the country, but it is still not supported in most areas.

Calls to 911 have dropped 24 percent since the shelter-in-place order went into effect, however calls related to domestic violence have remained constant, according to numbers from SFDEM. Last year, between March 17 and April 8, there were 44,461 emergency calls with 459 related to domestic violence. During the same period this year, there were 33,875 calls, 448 of which were related to domestic violence.

SFDEM said in December that domestic violence calls have been dropping when viewed over a four-year period, but warned that may not mean domestic violence is happening less often.

If you are a survivor of domestic violence and need assistance, please contact:

  • W.O.M.A.N., Inc. 24 Hour Crisis Line 877-384-3578
  • La Case de las Madres 24 Hour Crisis Line: 877-503-1850 (adults), 877-923-0700 (teens), 415-200-3575 (text)
  • Asian Women’s Shelter 24 Hour Crisis Line: 877-751-0880
  • Riley Center at the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco 24 Hour Crisis Line: 415-225-0165
  • San Francisco District Attorney Victims Services: 415-553-9044
  • Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic: 415-255-0165

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