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Crisis Text Line - A Service for People in Crisis that 9-1-1 Dispatchers Should Know About

Author: Michael Spath

Date: 2016-05-10
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Your Dispatch Center may receive a call from a service called "Crisis Text Line" (CTL) requesting assistance on a suicidal subject or other such crisis.  They are a national crisis intervention service based in Manhattan, NY; they are legitimately trying to help those in need via text messages.  They may not have much information to go on, and may not even be calling the right jurisdiction, but they are trying.  More on that in a bit...

I first heard about them a month ago from a TED Talk podcast.  When I heard that the hashtag #kms meant "kill myself," I nearly drove my car off the road!  I've been in 9-1-1 for nearly 25 years and had never heard that before.  Given the current implementation of Text to 9-1-1 throughout the country, I figured that might be important information for all of our 9-1-1 dispatchers to have before the text message arrives.  I was intrigued by the massive amount of text message data CTL has gathered.  What other lessons might they be able to share with us?

Check out and see what they're doing with their data.

Their main website is - a bevy of information on what they are doing and how.  The newsletters on their media section are particularly enlightening!

There are a number of struggles their counselors are facing when they get an "active rescue" - someone texting them who is threatening suicide or homicide.  CTL counselors will do their best to de-escalate the caller, but are forced to contact 9-1-1 for assistance when the caller is triaged as imminent risk and refusing all efforts to safety plan.

If the person has shared their location with the counselor, CTL can call the appropriate jurisdiction and request assistance.  The struggle is that most PSAPs they call have not heard of them, so they run into questions of credibility and misunderstandings, which consumes a lot of time in what could be a critical situation.  However, if the person has not shared their location, CTL can only provide us the texter's cellular phone number and mobile carrier information.  As we all know, finding the right jurisdiction based solely on an area code and telephone number is problematic, and the ability of a PSAP to request a ping on a cell phone varies by the circumstances of the situation and state laws.

While much of this is beyond our ability to improve, what we can get better at is recognizing a fellow organization that is trying to help and shave some time off the call triage process.  9-1-1 Center managers can familiarize your dispatchers with this service and how it works – and spread the word.  You may even have personnel in your Centers who would like to volunteer for Crisis Text Line in their off duty time.  I remember at least one trainee of mine who also served at the local Suicide Prevention Hotline on her weekends.  CTL has an application, background, and training process in place for their Crisis Counselors.

Would it surprise you to know CTL has found they have frequent texters? In January of 2015, CTL published a newsletter stating they’d found 3% of their texters were taking up 34% of their conversation minutes.  Sound familiar?  What intrigues me is they implemented a management plan for them and reduced the percentage of conversation minutes from 34% to 16%.  They also have an algorithm in place on their software platform that recognizes key words like hang, pills, kill, etc. in the first or second text message and places those text sessions higher in the queue.  That reminds me of how 9-9-9 got its start in London back in the '30s – prioritizing which calls to answer first.

I have established a dialogue with several staff members at Crisis Text Line and will continue to work toward more open communication between our respective communities. Personnel from Crisis Text Line are going to be in Indianapolis in June on the Exhibit Floor at the National NENA Conference And Trade Show; I think it would be beneficial for us to learn more about them as they learn more about us. 

In the long term, I can see this service complementing 9-1-1 much like Suicide Prevention Hotlines have done for decades.  I, for one, am excited about what we might be able to accomplish together.  If you can make it to National NENA, stop by the CTL booth and say hello!


Michael Spath is the 9-1-1 Communications Center Manager for the City of Sunnyvale, California, and a long-time trainer, advisor, and Council of Standards member for the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

This commentary was originally posted to NENA’s 9-1-1Talk email listserver on May 10th, and is posted here with permission of Michael Spath.


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