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For the first time, Massachusetts cellphone users can text 911

A call center in Roswell, Ga., which has text-to-911 technology. Lisa Marie Pane/Associated Press/File

It may be the only way someone who needs the police — but has to remain as quiet as possible — can summon help.

For the first time, cellphone users in Massachusetts can now send text messages directly to emergency dispatchers, a major upgrade to what is known as the Next Generation 911 system. The new service had a “soft rollout” in December and is now in place in call centers across the state, officials said.

“This is a significant improvement to our 911 system that will save lives,” Thomas Turco, the state’s public safety and security secretary, said in a statement Wednesday. “By giving those requiring emergency services this option we are greatly expanding the ability of first-responders to provide critical assistance to those in need.”


The arrival of text messaging also marks a significant advance for the deaf and hard of hearing, who have had to connect to a text telephone system to contact emergency assistance, a process that required a landline, specialized equipment, or a third party, officials said.

“They live in the wireless world, the same as everybody else,’’ Monna Wallace, program director for the state’s 911 Department. “They’ve never had the ability to contact 911 directly . . . Text-to-911 opens up that world to them.”

The Federal Communications Commission has pushed communities and cellphone providers to provide text-to-911 service nationwide, but fewer than 1,500 public safety agencies nationally do so.

Text exchanges with emergency dispatchers are the same as ordinary messages. The person needing help types in the three numbers — 9-1-1- — in the “to” or “recipient” field. The person is connected to a dispatcher who reads the message on the same dispatch screen used for other 911 calls, regardless of the technology. The dispatcher can then type a reply.

“It’s a real simple process, the same as if you were texting a family member,’’ Wallace said.


At that point, staffers say, the person has to be precise, brief, and explicit. Here are some other tips.

■  Text messages will usually be received by local 911 dispatchers. But they won’t necessarily know where you are, so texters should immediately provide their location.

■  If possible, texters should be precise about their whereabouts, especially if they are unfamiliar with the area or driving through it. They should provide landmarks, cross streets, names of businesses, floor and apartment numbers, and exact location within a building.

“Having the ability to contact a 911 call center by text could help those being held against their will or victims of domestic violence unable to make a voice call,” said Frank Pozniak, executive director of the state’s 911 Department.

Officials said that people should text 911 only when calling is not possible and that improvements have also been made to the emergency call system. In those areas where 911 calls had been received by State Police dispatchers before being sent to local police, they now go directly to local dispatchers, although officials said there is still room for improvement in the accuracy of call locations.

The upgrades to voice calls have been made in 232 answering sites statewide, with fewer than 30 remaining. (Not all of Massachusetts 351 cities and towns have their own public safety dispatch system.)

Because geospatial information for cellphone calls remains less than 100 percent accurate, the system might route calls placed near a town border to a neighboring community. Dispatchers are trained to steer callers quickly to the right agency. State officials said they remain hopeful that cellphone providers will improve the accuracy of geospatial data in the near future.


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.