LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) — When disaster strikes, getting help as fast as possible can be the difference between life and death. But sometimes there are situations where people can’t make a call, and that’s when texting can save a life.

Not every dispatch system has a text-to-911 option, but many do, including Barry County, Grand Rapids and Kent County, Ionia County, Newaygo County and Ottawa County. Ingham County also has it. Generally, dispatchers want you to call if you can, but say you should text if you can’t.

Ingham County Central Dispatch says it uses the service every day to help people in domestic violence situations, during home invasions, for non-English speakers and people with disabilities. 

“It’s so important for us to be able to engage the public the way they want us to engage them,” Ionia County Central Dispatch Director Barb Davidson said. “If that’s where your comfort is… Do it.”

Though Ingham County has been offering the service for five years, they said the February shooting that killed three Michigan State University students showed just how important it is.

“Folks were in rooms waiting, didn’t know what was going on, didn’t want to make any noise. We got a lot of texts that day,” Davidson said.

The shooting also pointed out a few places where improvement could be made. Though the texts are invaluable, officials say a picture can be worth a thousand words. New technology will let people share a photo or even stream video live to Ingham County dispatchers in real time to let them know exactly what they are seeing.

“It’s a game of telephone,” Davidson said. “How you perceive something, how I perceive something, I still have to explain it with a picture or a video… so we are all seeing the same thing and speaking the same language so to speak.”

Using the new system is as simple as texting anyone else. But dispatchers have also provided some tips to make sure you are using the system as efficiently as possible:

  • Use any phone with a current plan. Although phones without a phone plan will work with phone calls to 911, disconnected cell phones will not text 911
  • Text your emergency to 911 along with your address if you know it. If not, provide as many details as you can, and your phone’s GPS can help first responders get within 50 – 75 feet of your current location.
  • Dispatchers will receive an alert within 30 seconds, and text you back immediately to get more information.
  • This service can automatically translate messages from a list of around 60 languages, so reach out in the one you feel most comfortable with.  
  • Dispatchers may also send you a link that lets you easily share videos and photos with them.
  • When the incident is resolved, dispatchers will send you a clear message that says the conversation is over and you don’t need to stay on the line, but you can always text right back if you need to.