It’s in the news recently that US wireless providers are working on a service to allow text messaging to emergency responders. Everyone assumes this will make people more safe, but will it really?

There are several hidden costs to this possibility, one of which is a lower barrier to contacting emergency services. You can bet that every time there’s a gunshot in an urban area the number of emergency contacts will go up from the 15 people who would call to the 45 that would text.

The other issue with a SMS-based system is that it will make it much harder on emergency operators, already probably receiving a higher volume of contacts, to screen the callers or rather texters. It can be hard enough to get any sort of context in 140 characters, even when you know the person on the other end, to say nothing of when you don’t know them or where they are at the time they’re texting you. When you think about it you can probably imagine the chaos of trying to figure out what sort of emergency it is and where before sending the officers on the street running every which way to actually get to the location.

It may be the way of the future, but it’s going to require some restructuring and possibly some increased costs and the difficulties of dealing with emergencies through a medium that most people find ill-suited for anything urgent. In the real world a text can go minutes and hours without a response, and prolongs any conversation. We’ll see how that translates to emergencies and emergency responders trying to ask questions to find out more.