We all know what to do in a medical emergency or dangerous situation. Call 911, of course. But what if calling emergency services isn't a possible or safe option? Can you send a text to 911 instead?

The short answer is yes, you can. But there are some caveats. Read on to find out when texting emergency services is a viable option and what details you need to include to ensure you get a fast emergency response.

Can you send a text message to 911?

The first thing to note is that emergency SMS messages are only an option in some countries. The technology isn't available worldwide; the only countries where you can contact emergency services by text are the UK, the Netherlands and the US (although it's not supported in all states). You'll also need an active texting plan to send an emergency SMS.

How did texts to emergency services become possible?

Text message alerts to 911, and other emergency numbers were made possible for several reasons, including:

  • To help with accessibility: it enables people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired to safely and quickly contact emergency services.

  • When you can't talk: in certain situations, silence is essential. For example, if you're in a hostage, mass shooting or domestic violence situation or trying to escape an intruder. Sending an emergency text would be the best way to raise the alarm without alerting an attacker or assailant to what you're doing. Texting is a silent form of communication, providing you turn text alert sounds off on your phone. And it can be quicker than a voice call.

  • If you're in a remote area: texts are ideal if the phone signal is poor and you can't stay connected long enough to explain your emergency. With a text, you could outline the key information emergency responders need to know in one or two messages.

A brief overview of the emergency text services available

The emergency text alert system in the US (called Text-to-911) was set up in 2014. Around 1,600 emergency call centers support the service in states such as Arizona, Connecticut, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Florida and Texas. Data on Text-to-911 is somewhat patchy, but it's clear the technology has saved countless lives.

The UK's emergency SMS service was designed for people with hearing or speech-related disabilities. It works through an app called Relay UK which connects users to a relay assistant to help them communicate. In an emergency, you can text 18000, and a relay assistant will connect the call to an operator. Or you can text 999, the UK's regular emergency number.

In the Netherlands, emergency SMS messages are sent to 112. If you have an Android phone, your location will be shared with the control room so emergency departments can reach you quickly. You can also use the Tolkcontact app on a smartphone, tablet or desktop device. This is an interpretation service for people with speech and hearing disabilities.

Hearing-impaired person using mobile phone

How do you send an emergency text message?

To be sure you can send an emergency SMS, you'll need to do a little prep beforehand. If you're in the US, download the FCC's list of areas which support the Text-to-911 service to check whether you're in an area covered by this technology. In the UK, you must register your mobile phone before using the 'emergencySMS' service, and the Netherlands service also requires registration.

To send emergency alerts by text, follow these steps:

  1. Open up your native SMS app and type your country's emergency services number into the recipient field.

  2. Compose your SMS message, making sure to include the following points:

    • The emergency service you need, e.g. police, ambulance or fire brigade.

    • A brief explanation of the emergency, keeping it short and to the point.

    • Your exact location or address. If you don't know this, include the nearest landmark you can see, such as a nearby shop, park, school, etc. The clearer your message is, the better your chances of getting a speedy and effective response.

  3. Once you've finished, tap 'Send'.

You should get a reply quickly, so sit tight. Usually, you'll be asked further questions to ensure emergency responders understand the full extent of your situation, so reply promptly to those.

Sample emergency SMS alerts

The examples below will give you an idea of what you should include if you ever need to text 911 in an emergency.

Help police. Intruder at my home. 28 Maple St, LS33 9BZ.

Police help quick. Abusive partner. Trapped. Acorn Drive, Bolton. 44.

Need ambulance, man lying in street, stab wound to stomach. Nr Bookers furniture shop, main st. Houston.

What happens if you get an error message when texting 911

If you get a 'bounce back message', this is basically an SMS report telling you your message failed to be delivered. This is likely to occur if you text 911 in an area where emergency SMS services aren't available.

In the US, the FCC stipulates that wireless carriers must send an automatic text to minimise the risk of mistakenly thinking your message has been transmitted to an emergency call center, when it hasn't.

Getting a bounce-back message when you're trying to raise the alarm isn't ideal and may even cause you to panic. Try to remain calm and consider what other options you have available. If you can't speak, it's still worth making a voice call as the operator may have a 'Silent Solution' in place to assess your call and arrange help. Alternatively, if someone else is nearby, ask them to make the call for you.

Calling 911 concept on smartphone

Sending emergency SMS messages

It's a good idea to have a backup plan for emergency calls in the event of a dangerous situation where you need to remain silent or if you're hearing or speech-impaired.

In the US, UK and Netherlands, it's possible to send an emergency SMS. To help responders reach you quickly, include which services you need, a brief description of your situation, and your location.

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