Text-to-911 service is now widely available

  • Written by Dermot Connolly


joann wong photo 5-24

                                            Photo by Anthony Caciopo

Joann Wong works Tuesday morning at Southwest Central Dispatch in Palos Heights, which fields police and/or fire calls for more than a dozen departments in 11 communities including Chicago Ridge, Palos Hills, Worth and a portion of Hickory Hills.


Jason Roseen is one of four dispatchers fielding fire and/or police calls at Southwest Central Dispatch, located next to the police department in Palos Heights. The system can now handle 911 requests via text messages. Behind Roseen is fellow dispatcher Stefanie Baker.

Southwest Central Dispatch, the Palos Heights-based 911 center, is now offering text-to-911 service to the nine communities and three fire districts that it serves.

These areas include Chicago Ridge, Countryside, Crestwood, Indian Head Park, Lemont, Palos Heights, Palos Hills, Palos Park and Worth, as well as the areas covered by Palos, North Palos and Palos Heights fire protection districts.

Most major wireless customers within the coverage area can now send a text (up to 140 characters) to 911 in an emergency. Dispatch officials caution that this should only be used in an emergency situation, when placing a call is not possible. It is meant to be used by callers who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, speech impaired, or when speaking out loud would put the caller in danger.

Mary McIlvain, director of the Southwest Central Dispatch center, said the service became available on May 11, after a six-month setup process.

“We haven’t received any texts yet. But that is to be expected. We are reaching out to speech and hearing associations (to make their clients are aware of it). If it helps one person with a speech or hearing issue, it’s done its job,” said McIlvain.

The motto is “call if you can, text if you can’t.” For safety reasons, texting and driving is against the law.

When texting to 911, the instructions are as follows:

$1·         Enter the numbers “911” in the “To” field.

$1·         In the first text message send the location and type of emergency.

$1·         Press the “Send” button.

Users are advised to text using simple words and keep messages short without abbreviations or slang. They also should be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions from the 911 call taker.

Southwest Central Dispatch is not the first 911 agency in the area to offer texting. The Orland Park Police Department’s 911 system already offers 911 texting, and others will soon be adding it.

William Newman, director of the Orland Fire Protection District, which encompasses the villages of Orland Park and Orland Hills, and unincorporated Orland Township, said his district benefits from Orland Park PD having it.

“We handle fire and EMS (emergency medical service) calls but emergency calls go first to the police department, and they notify us,” said Newman.

Diana Tousignant, communications director of the 911 center based in Oak Lawn, said texting capabilities should be available there by the first quarter of next year. In addition to Oak Lawn, her center also handles 911 calls for Evergreen Park, Burbank, Bridgeview, Bedford Park, Central Stickney and Alsip.

“We have the software, it just needs to be implemented,” said Tousignant.                                                        

Hickory Hills Police Department has its own 911 center, and texting is not yet available there.

McIlvain said that the set-up process, in addition to training staff on software use, requires coordinating with the various telephone service providers.

A text or data plan is required to use the 911 text service. Other challenges include the fact that text location information is not equal to current location technology. As with all text messages, 911 messages may take longer to receive, get out of order, or may not be received at all.

Texting to 911 is also not available when roaming. If it is not available, temporarily or otherwise, users will receive a message advising them to contact 911 by other means.

Users who do not receive any response from 911 are also advised to contact 911 another way. Photos and videos cannot yet be sent to 911, and emergency texts cannot include any other number but 911 so they cannot be sent as a group text.

More information about where 911 texting is available may be obtained at