Evanston has become the fourth community in the state and the first on the north shore to make it possible to send text messages to the city’s 911 emergency service.

But officials say there are a number of limitations to the text messaging system, so they are encouraging people to still call 911 if they can, and only use the text service if for some reason they can’t make a phone call.

Evanston Police Communications Coordinator Perry Polinski says the service could be useful for residents with speech or hearing impairments and to domestic crime victims in a situation where to speak might increase their danger.

Cellular phone users with a text or data plan from one of the four major carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – are now able to text 911, but only within the boundaries of the City of Evanston or in another area where the service is available.

If it’s not available, the major cell phone carriers will send an auto reply message that states, “Make a voice call to 9-1-1. Text service is not supported at this time.”

Text to 9-1-1 is a Short Message Service (SMS). As such, Polinski says, it is designed within wireless networks as a “store-and-forward” method of communication and generally is not meant to be used for time-sensitive communications. And, whether you are texting or making a voice call, cellular phone technology does not provide an exact location, and emergency call takers must rely on the caller to supply them with that critical piece of information.

More information about the new service is available on the city’s website.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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