What if Minnesotans could text police?

Minnesota should initiate an emergency texting program.

Ronald Dixon

The Federal Communications Commission recently revealed a pilot program for texting 911 for emergencies. The rationale for such a program isn’t difficult to comprehend. There are some individuals who are unable to call 911 during emergency situations, either due to a disability or because dialing the number and talking with a dispatcher may place the caller at risk.

While the FCC plans on a national rollout of the Text-to-911 program, it’s only implementing the pilot program in a few dozen counties across the country, none of which are in Minnesota.

Should we wait for the FCC to expand the program to include Minnesota?

Vermont seems to be an excellent example of a state that is unwilling to wait to take action. It became the first state to offer the service statewide earlier this month, and the four major cellphone companies — Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T — decided to comply with Vermont’s program and the nationwide pilot initiatives.

So, if Vermont can do it, why can’t we?

To those who may be weary of technological advancement and utilizing existing technology to spur change, there are both real and hypothetical examples of the service’s potential benefits.

While there are only about 34 legitimate examples of 911 texts since Vermont’s program began, there is one that stands out. A Vermont police department received a text alerting them of an individual that was about to hang themself. By the time police arrived, the person had already hanged themself, but law enforcement was able to revive them.

Could the police have saved this individual’s life if a bystander called 911, as opposed to using the new texting service? Perhaps, but the situation may have needed more discretion.

What about a robbery? I have imagined various instances of what I would do if someone trespassed onto my property. If I decided to call the police, would the robber hear me, and if so, would they attack me? Texting 911, and remaining hidden in the process, may save lives.

Skeptics may point to the low rate of use in Vermont. If so few people are even using the program, is it economically feasible to expand the service to other states?

I would argue that expanding these programs is worth the cost. First, as more people become aware of these texting services, more will also begin using them. This service is only in its experimental stage, so it has years to improve.

Even if usage rates remain low, I would argue that any program with the potential to save lives has worth. The role of government is to serve the people and to make them safer. We should adjust a basic service like law enforcement for new technology and for the next generation of Americans. Perhaps making the process more informal will allow people who feel uncomfortable talking with police to reach out in emergency situations.

The FCC has foreseeable issues to address, such as spam messages and false alarms, but solutions may come out of a pilot program. Minnesota should join Vermont and the pilot programs in order to play a part in these solutions.

Most people carry cellphones with texting capabilities, and Minnesotans, if given the opportunity, will likely use the texting service both for its efficiency and its ability to save lives.