TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KLIX) – There’s a new way people in south-central Idaho can contact police in the event of an emergency: by texting.

The new Text-to-911 feature was activated at noon today. It is a multi-agency feature used between the City of Twin Falls Communications Center, Blaine County Emergency Communications, and Southern Idaho Regional Communications or SIRCOMM that will allow people in need of help to text their emergency to 911. It is not meant to replace phone calls to 911, but should be used when a phone call is not ideal or cannot safely be made.

Photo by Benito Baeza - Twin Falls City Police Lt. Craig Stotts explains the text-to-911 feature at the police station Tuesday morning.

“Call if you can, text if you must,” said Twin Falls City Police Lt. Craig Stotts, reciting the feature’s theme during a presentation to local media on Tuesday morning.

The feature will especially be helpful in situations of domestic violence, home invasions, medical emergencies and other situations when talking may be problematic for the victim, he said. It also will be beneficial to speech- or hearing-impaired persons.

The feature uses software that allows cellphone users in Twin Falls, Blaine, Gooding, Jerome and Lincoln counties to text their emergency to 911. Some parameters are in place, Stotts said, and misusing the feature – as is the case with any misuse of 911 – is a misdemeanor offense.

There still are some things a text message to 911 won’t do. The system does not accept photos videos and other attachments at this time, said SIRCOMM Director John Moore, but accepting such things may become a feature down the road.

Locating the user of a text message is not as accurate as a phone call, he said, and so calling 911 is still the more efficient way to reach emergency help. When texting an emergency it’s important that users relay their location multiple times, especially if they are in a moving vehicle. Users will receive a “bounce-back” message if they text out of the system area.

“Users will need to give us the best location they possibly can,” Moore said.

Even with the new feature, however, it is still illegal to text while driving. Stotts, who has visited other agencies in the state that has adopted a texting feature, said one way texting helped a young girl in northern Idaho was when she was riding with her father, who had been drinking. She was afraid to call for help and instead texted her emergency.

When agencies started talking six months ago about developing a regional 911 texting feature, Moore said it was imperative the city get on board with it. They started talking with cellphone carriers, who initiated jurisdictional texting boundaries. The system was set up and agencies have since been testing the system and working out the kinks as much as possible before they pushed the buttons for it to go live today.

Dispatchers are able to handle multiple text messages at once. About 15 canned emergency responses are in place, but individual dispatchers will work each case as they are notified. Dispatchers will receive repeated messages until they respond to a text message.

Stotts said there is some 500 other agencies across the country that use a text-to-911 system, and it is another way for people to ask for emergency help in the digital age.

“The way people communicate has changed,” he said, noting that anymore most people have a cellphone and young people are “always texting.”

Keith Bell/ThinkStock

Steps When Texting to 911:

  • Pull up your texting platform and type in 911 in the TO: line. Drop to the message area and type the message with your request for help, including your address and what’s happening.
  • Text your exact location.
  • Text what emergency help is needed.
  • Be clear; send a short text message without abbreviations or slang.
  • Stay calm, answer questions and follow instructions from dispatch.
  • Send only text message (SMS) to 911; the emergency system does not accept group messages, pictures or video.
  • Do not abuse text-to-911; should be used by hearing or speech impaired individuals or others in emergency situations where a phone call cannot be safely made.
  • If you send a text message to 911 in an area that does not accept 911 texting, you will know because the message will bounce back advising you to call 911.
  • Remember: CALL IF YOU CAN ... TEXT IF YOU MUST!
    -Source SIRCOMM