Calling 911 is no longer the only option for people facing an emergency. In some areas of the country, they now can send a text.
While it’s not the best method of getting help due to the limitations of texting in general, the option is now available in all of Minnesota. Additionally, across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, texting 911 is available in some counties, the nearest to Winona being La Crosse County. Wisconsin does not yet have a texting option statewide.
This can cause some issues for people in Winona near the river trying to text 911. Because the option isn’t available across the bridge in Buffalo County, if a phone service carrier picks up a text on towers on the Wisconsin side, the caller will be notified that a texting option is not available in their location. But, when 911 texting is available, it can help save lives in situations where calls are not a safe option — like in domestic violence, break-ins and more.
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Additionally, if someone has a disability that makes it challenging to call 911, texting can also be a helpful option.
Dana Wahlberg, director of the Emergency Communication Networks Division at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said that Minnesota made texting 911 a statewide option in December of 2017, after three years of preparations.
“One of the things that was really important to us is that we had a single solution for text to 911, so that regardless of what dispatch center someone worked in, they were doing the same process in receiving and processing a text request,” Wahlberg said. “And we wanted to also ensure that we had a full statewide deployment. We didn’t want individual dispatch centers to go live independently, one at a time here and there, because that’s very confusing for the residents and visitors in Minnesota.”
Wahlberg said the texting option doesn’t require dispatch centers to add any extra resources that would increase costs.
Jennifer LaValla, Winona County’s dispatch supervisor, said that the texts pop up on dispatch’s computers just like a call would.
Instead of having a verbal conversation, though, the dispatchers send text responses using their keyboards and computers. As a result, dispatch workers cannot hear tone of voice or sounds in the background, and it can be more difficult to get immediate responses.
Texting allows dispatch to track people’s locations, but the location data is not as specific as it is with calls.
Because of all these factors, it is often best to make a call in the case of an emergency, even if there is just silence on the caller’s side of the call.
LaValla said that very few people use the texting option each year.
David Steinberg, administrator for La Crosse County Public Safety Communications, shared that La Crosse County has also had very few texts sent to their 911 dispatch center.
La Crosse County’s 911 dispatch center is getting an upgrade soon, thanks to Wisconsin’s next generation project, which will allow the county to start receiving images via text from individuals too.
Steinberg said this could be beneficial because it would allow someone texting 911 to send a photo of their location.
With the upcoming changes, a push is coming in Wisconsin for texting to be a more widespread option, Steinberg said. La Crosse County got ahead of this shift by making texting an option in the summer of 2021.
LaValla stressed that, in general, anyone looking to use 911 services should always stay on the phone when they call, even if the number was dialed by accident or if it seems like the call has not gone through.
LaValla shared that it saves valuable time of the dispatchers, because they are required to contact the caller if they receive a call.
It is also important not to abuse the option to call or text 911, as that will also take up time that the dispatcher could use to help others.