If there’s an emergency, most folks know you’re supposed to dial 911. But what happens if it’s a hostage or active shooter situation, and you can’t speak because you’re hiding?

New Jersey has just rolled out a text-to-911 system.

“We are now live and anyone can text to 911 and access a dispatcher in all 21 counties throughout New Jersey,” said Dave Weinstein, chief technology officer of the New Jersey Office of Information Technology.

He said facilities, sometimes located at County Office of Emergency Management offices, all have “an Internet connection and software to enable communication via text message between anyone in the state and a trained operator. We want to grant our citizens alternative channels to reach law enforcement if and only if they’re unable to call.”

He said the system is ideal for hearing- and speaking-impaired residents, but it can also be used when you’re under circumstances that preclude you from speaking.

“A recent example is actually the hostage situation that tragically took place in Orlando, where there were individuals held up in a bathroom,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein stressed, however, “New Jeseyans should call 911 when they can, and only use texting when it’s the only option they have.”

“At the end of the day it is ideal for dispatchers to hear your voice and hear background noise, but it is an alternative channel for our citizens," he said. "It’s a great idea, it’s one that’s very timely. As we’ve seen tragically in recent weeks, this truly can be a life-saving capability.”

He said when using texting to 911, GPS software on your phone may enable dispatchers to know where you’re calling from, but “it’s best to assume the dispatcher will not know your location, so you should specify where you are.”

Weinstein added during a text to 911 call, the dispatcher will stay with you for the entire time that you are communicating, “but they will also refer the case to the local jurisdiction. There are processes in place to make sure the municipal government is informed when these text messages are sent in.”

So how exactly does this work?

He said if you need to text 911, you would do it the same way you send a text to any phone number.

“Instead of the phone number, the traditional 10 digit phone number, you would enter 911, and then in the body of the message you would initiate the conversation,” he said. “We’re going to be working for the next several months to get the word out, not just about this new capability, but this notion of calling when you can, and texting when you can’t.”

The bottom line, said Weinstein: “This is not designed to replace speaking with a 911 dispatcher. It’s simply designed to provide an alternative channel of communication.”

He also noted each county will keep records of all the text-to-911 conversations just as they do with regular audio 911 calls.

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