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How to call 911 using modern devices

911 services have changed with the growing popularity of modern devices such as cell phones, internet calls, and texting. Be 911 aware!


How to call or text 911

Did you know that you may be dialing 911 without even knowing it?

  • A phone in your pocket or purse may call 911 when it is bumped or sat on
  • A phone with no service can still call 911
  • A phone locked in emergency mode can sometimes call 911

You can help reduce these accidental 911 calls by knowing how your cell phone works and following a few simple rules:

  • Lock your cell phone's keypad when it is not in use
  • Do not give old phones to children to play with as toys
  • Know if your cell phone has an emergency mode and how it works
  • Do not program 911 into your cell phone, and if your cell has a 911 auto-dialing feature, turn it off

In a survey, 29% of wireless calls to 911 were dialed accidentally. A majority of these accidental calls are hang-up before the 911 center can answer the call. If you hang up the 911 center will attempt to call you back to determine if there is an emergency. This process takes valuable time away from answering real emergency calls.


Wireless phones with no active service can still call 911, as long as they have battery power. However, be aware that limited information will be available to the 911 center, and if you are disconnected the 911 center will not be able to call you back.

There are serious problems with 911 centers receiving repeated calls from children playing with deactivated wireless phones. These calls tie up 911 lines so real emergency calls cannot get through. In 2012, 93% of the 911 calls from deactivated wireless phones were inappropriate calls, including misdials, hang-ups, or harassing calls. To help solve this problem, please do not give your old wireless phones to children to play with.

Text-to-911 is a service in King County that will help those who are deaf, hard of hearing, speech impaired, and anyone who might be unsafe if they were to be heard by an intruder or abusive partner. While texting to 911 is a vital tool that increases accessibility to emergency services, the preferred method for those who can speak is to call. 

If you do need to text 911 in an emergency: 

  • Open the text messaging program on your cell phone
  • Create a new message
  • Enter the numbers 911 in the "To" field
  • Send the location of the emergency – including city – and the type of emergency help needed – police, fire, or medical – in the first message
  • Keep text messages brief and concise.
  • Type complete words, no abbreviation
  • Stay with your phone and be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions from 911 call takers

There are limitation to text-to-911 including:

  • The system can only receive text, no pictures, videos, or emojis.
  • Texts to 911 are treated like all other texts, there is no priority.
  • Texting can be slower than making a voice call.
  • The system can only respond to texts in English.

Please help keep 911 available for those who need it. Do not send test texts. Text-to-911 is not for anonymous tips.  

King County has implemented Phase II Wireless 911 service as specified by the Federal Communications Commission with all wireless carriers who provide service here. This means that wireless 911 calls are routed based on the cell site that received the call, not the caller's exact location, and only your general location may display at the 911 center. Because of this, it is very important that you know your location and can relay the address, street names, or landmark to the call receiver that answers your 911 call. A survey done in March 2010 showed that about 17% of people who called 911 from a wireless phone in King County did not know their location. This can delay response time as the 911 call receiver attempts to obtain a valid location to be able to send police, fire or medical aid.

As with all 911 calls, it is important that you stay on the line, unless there is a threat to your safety, and that you answer all of the call receiver's questions as calmly as possible. Your call may need to be transferred to another agency, depending on your exact location and the nature of your emergency. If your phone loses service during the call or you are disconnected, call 911 as soon as you are able to re-establish a connection. If the 911 center has received your phone number, they will also attempt to call you back.

Tips on how to use a VolP device

Many people are giving up their traditional landline phone service at home and moving to Interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service. VoIP allows you to make and receive calls to and from traditional phone numbers using a broadband internet connection.

Some users may not even realize that they no longer have landline phone service, because providers may simply call it "home phone service." VoIP service is attractive because it may be bundled with internet and TV for one price, and may offer free nationwide calling.

People should be aware that VoIP 911 service works differently than traditional landline 911 service


Caller address information may not display correctly at the 911 center for VoIP 911 calls. With landline phones, each address that is added to the 911 database is checked to make sure it fits with countywide addressing standards. With VoIP, the 911 center is unable to see what addresses people provided for their phone until they call 911. If the address is incorrect, they must be able to provide their correct address before help can be sent.



If someone has provided an incorrect address for their phone, their 911 call could route to the wrong 911 center, causing the emergency response to be delayed while the correct address is determined and the call is transferred to the correct center. When the VoIP phone service can be moved to different locations and the owner doesn't update the address, the 911 call can even be routed to the wrong state or country.


The battery on a VoIP phone may only last up to four hours, and then the phone will no longer work. During winter storms or disasters when people may need help, their phone may not work to call 911.


Some VoIP services cannot call 911. The caller may receive a "service not available" recording. Programming a ten-digit number for a 911 center into the phone DOES NOT provide 911 service. Your call will be answered at a lower priority than 911 calls, and no information is provided, so you must be able to give your phone number and location before help can be sent.


Even if the phone's owner understands the 911 issue, visitors or others will expect the phone to provide them with access to 911 service when they call 911 in an emergency.


Before you sign up for VoIP service, King County 911 encourages you to read all 911 information so you clearly understand the 911 capabilities of VoIP service.

When considering switching from traditional landline phone service to VoIP phone service, be an informed consumer. Anyone who is thinking about switching to VoIP needs to read the fine print and realize that the 911 service they have come to rely on may not work the same for this new phone service.

For information on FCC regulations and challenges of VoIP phones, visit the FCC website. For further questions about VoIP phones contact Marlys Davis, 911 Program Manager.