Can 911 find you in case of emergency?

Channel 2 tests the text to 911 system

HOUSTON – Now, more than ever, people are becoming more and more comfortable with texting instead of placing a phone call.

In an emergency, 911 even offers the option to text dispatchers if it's too dangerous to make a call.

Threats of a school shooting: "They wanted to shoot up the school."

A child secretly warning police that his dad is driving drunk: "My dad is drinking and driving and I don't want him to know I'm calling the police."

A deaf man trying to save his house from a fire: "I'm deaf, I can't talk on the phone, need fire department immediately."

These were all real emergency texts sent to 911.

Scott Powers' text about his burning house went right to dispatchers, and his home was saved.

Leah Cooper is a dispatcher in Baytown.

"It can be fun. It can be sad. You never know what to expect when you walk in the door," Cooper said.

Cooper is also a mom.

"It makes me appreciate my family and my kids more when I go home ... Some days I go home and love on them after I get a tough call," she said.

With this new technology, can dispatchers find you in an emergency, and just how long does it take for them to locate you?

We went to Baytown to test out of the text to 911 system to see how well it works.

Drawback: Time

Dispatchers tell us there are drawbacks. They stress to call if you can, text if you can't.

Kevin Vick is a training coordinator and supervisor at the Baytown Communications Center.

The first drawback of texting 911 is that it takes longer than making a phone call.

"A text call lasts about three times longer than a voice call," Vick said. "We're able to communicate so quickly via voice, a question and answer format, versus texting. The text has to go through a tower."

Channel 2 requested the data to find out just how much longer it takes to text 911 as opposed to just calling. The average text session is three minutes, but they can be much longer.

With the Harris County Sheriff's Office, we found one session that lasted 14 minutes.

One in Pasadena lasted 27 minutes.

In Baytown, one took 36 minutes.

In the Galveston County region, text sessions went from a couple of minutes all the way up to 45 or 50 minutes.

The agency couldn't break down the average text session because that region received so few texts to 911.

The entire agency received 183 texts to 911 in 2018.

READ: Galveston County 911 Stats



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Galveston County 911 Stats (PDF)
Galveston County 911 Stats (Text)


Drawback: Location accuracy

Another concern is location accuracy. The text to 911 system is based on cellphone service and cellphone providers. Therefore, it's only as accurate as the cellphone carrier.

Channel 2's Andy Cerota tested out the location accuracy in Baytown.

First, Cerota went right outside the 911 call center.

With the city's permission, Cerota placed a test text to the 911 dispatchers.

In 1 minute and 37 seconds, dispatchers responded.

As for location?

"The call taker is provided latitude and longitude coordinates for that text call, right off the bat," Vick said.

Within two minutes, dispatchers were able to locate Cerota on the property. After a quick refresh of the location, dispatchers were able to track Cerota to the parking lot.

Cerota tested it again, this time in the community.

Channel 2 didn't tell dispatchers the location.

Within one minute, Cerota received a reply.

Dispatchers were able to locate Cerota at the Pirates Bay Water Park.

"The national standard is to be within 50 to 300 meters," Vick said.

How accurately did Baytown zero in on Cerota's location?

Dispatchers refreshed the program and were able to track Cerota right down to the parking spot.


"In the 911 world, every second matters," Vick said.

Next advancements

The next advancement in the text to 911 initiative is locating your three-dimensional position, knowing your exact latitude, longitude and your height.

That means knowing the difference between whether you're on the first floor of a building or the 20th.

Movie theater campaign

Later this month, movie theaters across the region will begin showing public service announcements about texting 911.

The PSA will be shown at 40 different theaters beginning Memorial Day weekend for six weeks.

The purpose of the campaign is to educate the community that this service is available when it is not possible to make a voice call.

Map: Text to 911 PSA Campaign