FOX13 INVESTIGATES: How police are using text messages to save lives

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dialing 911 has always been the first option in emergencies, but what if you need to contact law enforcement quietly? Law enforcement in Memphis and Shelby County now have a texting feature that could determine the difference between life and death.

“If someone was in a closet hiding because an intruder is in the house, that would be a good opportunity for them to use it. For us, we get location information like with a voice call, so that helps us to know where they are. We’ll continue to vary it to keep the citizens safe to get emergency services to them,” said Memphis Police Department Emergency Communications Administrator Michael Spencer.

The motto is “Call if you can, text if you can’t.”

Law enforcement says it’s also for people who have physical disabilities, and it can be useful in a scenario where a child or teacher may be locked in a classroom while an active shooter is roaming the halls of a school.

“We all have family and loved ones, and this service is just one more venue to get them the help they need or to get an ambulance, fire service, or anything to them when they need it,” said 911 Network District Director Carlton Ray.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office says last year, a total of 65 people used the text service, which translates to more than 700 messages between people who needed help and dispatch. Memphis Police say for 2021, 4,600 people used the service, which translates to more than 40,000 messages between people and dispatch.

The MPD gets an average of 684,000 voice 911 calls per year. Law enforcement makes it clear that this service does not improve response time. It’s a slower process, but in the case of certain emergencies, law enforcement says it may be a safer alternative than a phone call.

“Calling might put you at risk, so this just gives the citizen another way to get in touch with 911,” said Ray.

A regular 911 call exchange takes an average of only two minutes, but police say texting takes an average of about five minutes. The system is limited to messages of no more than 140 characters, and you can’t send photos, videos, emojis, or send a group text.

“It’s not a nationwide thing yet. There’s still only 35 to 40% of 911 centers in the country that has it, so the messaging is careful,” said Ray.

If the service is not available in your area, you will get a message that notifies you that the service is not available.

Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, Millington and all unincorporated areas of Shelby County have this service. DeSoto County does not.

You should check with your local government to find out if your area offers this service.

“It’s not a nationwide thing, but everybody is going to be looking to support it. All of your major carriers support it, so it’s when, not if,” said Ray.

Because of privacy and victim protection, FOX13 couldn’t speak with anyone who has used the service, but police say there are other things they are training for and have in the works that will also help solve crimes. Those plans are set to roll out in the coming weeks.