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When hiking, I often find myself in areas where cell phone reception is poor or intermittent. Sometimes the signal is not good enough to make a call, but it is still possible to send text messages (SMS). I have often wondered how I could use this to summon help in case of an emergency.

I'm in the US, and as far as I know, it isn't possible to send text messages to 911. The only idea I've come up with is that I could send a text to a friend, and ask them to call 911 or the local authorities in my area and relay the information. This is inefficient, and requires that I find a friend who is by their phone. Is there a more direct way?

I'd prefer answers that don't require special equipment or pre-arranged services other than a standard cell phone.

  • 2
    It seems like you are answering your own question: In the US it is currently not possible to text 911, if you want to get help via text message, you have to text a fiend/family member. Other ways require special equipment (for example a SPOT device), which you don't want to use. By the way, I have heard (but don't rely on this with your life) that often, even when a regular phone call won't go through, a call to 911 will. – DudeOnRock Jun 17 '13 at 4:16
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    I'm often in this same situation, where the nearest cell signal is miles away. There's the rule "never hike alone" which helps with this, provided you're not too seriously hurt. Having said that, many of us do hike solo. Know some first aid, tell people where you're going to be and when, and leave a map, make sure your will's up-to-date. – Don Branson Jun 18 '13 at 19:24
  • A bit extending what @DudeOnRock said: when your own provider has no signal in the area, you can still use other networks to call 911/112, at least in the EU. But this still means that there should be some coverage of any provider, at least. – Akabelle Apr 9 '18 at 9:07
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I didn't know this, but in fact, the ability to send text messages to 911 is being developed and could be ready within a year or two.

http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-321040A1.pdf

The four major US wireless carriers expect to be ready to route text messages to 911 by May 15, 2014. However, it may take longer for local emergency dispatch centers to be able to handle them. The system will be rolled out gradually; starting September 30, 2013 (June 30, 2013 for the major carriers), you will at least get a bounce-back if the system isn't available in your area.

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Instead of sending a text message to a single person, you might think of using a group SMS to increase the chance for having a friend forwarding the call to 911. Or use whatsapp in a group, in that case you see it will be send (and possibly received).

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    Group SMS and WhatsApp both rely on data transfer, requiring more signal than regular SMS – cr0 Apr 10 '18 at 15:37
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Not a direct answer, but to expand a bit it is possible in the UK, however you need to register your mobile first and it's really meant for those who are hard of speech or hearing rather than poor signal areas. Having said that, if you do register and then text in a poor signal area and give details of your location, I'm sure the emergency would still be dealt with - so much better than nothing.

  • As a note, the UK is currently considering the possibility of making all providers share coverage in rural areas which would help improve the UK rural situation. – Aravona Jun 30 '14 at 13:30
  • Regardless of coverage sharing, an emergency call will connect through any available cell tower, even if it belongs to a different provider or the SIM doesn't have a valid subscription. Many phones can make emergency calls with no SIM at all. – Chromatix Apr 8 '18 at 10:52
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In the EU (including the UK), SMS to the general emergency number (112) appears to be widely supported technically, but several countries I checked appear to require pre-registration. It's not clear whether that means SMS from unregistered numbers would be rejected.

In the UK, the British Transport Police have an SMS shortcode: 61016. This is intended for incidents occurring on public transport, but in a pinch you could use it to report other types of emergency. Unlike SMS to 112 or 999, this is available to anyone and does not require pre-registration.

Bear in mind that the BTP operator will need to relay information about your emergency to the appropriate service before help can be dispatched, and this might incur some unpredictable delay. For that reason, I suggest attempting to make a phone call to 112 or 999 first - due to special provisions in all cell towers, it may connect even if your phone can't make a standard call. Include as much information about your circumstances and location as possible in the initial message.

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Although the question specified using no equipment beyond a standard mobile phone, I think it's worth pointing out that VHF and UHF radio signals can typically be heard over greater distances than a phone signal, and shortwave signals even further. If you are planning to travel into remote areas with little or no phone service and with an elevated risk of requiring rescue, investing in a suitable radio or emergency beacon would be wise.

For this purpose, the easiest solution is probably an emergency beacon. When activated, the signal can be picked up by ground stations and satellites which continuously listen for such signals, and ships and aircraft often keep a listening watch on these frequencies as well. Rescue teams can then home in on the signal once alerted.

The biggest problem with emergency beacons is that they are often accidentally activated, which obviously places an unnecessary drain on emergency services' resources. If you get one, ask about how best to avoid this.

Another good option is to obtain an amateur-radio licence (which requires some study and taking an exam) and a portable radio of that type. Some of these radios are capable of transmitting on international emergency frequencies, just like beacons do, as well as radio amateur operators.

  • Consider a marine radio licence (which can accommodate marine handheld VHF). It doesn't allow you to transmit from land - but in a genuine emergency situation I wouldn't expect that to be enforced (and if it is, the consequent fine is probably better than dying alone). – Toby Speight Apr 10 '18 at 14:31

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