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Sending a 999 Text Message – Tip #71

By 24th March 2022April 7th, 2022Resources, Summer, Tips, Walking, Winter, Winter Walking


This winter I was unexpectedly involved in a mountain incident. As a result, I had to send a 999 text message to call Mountain Rescue.

I’d never used 999 messaging before, only voice, and it was a learning experience. Next time I will do things slightly differently. I can’t imagine why I hadn’t thought of this before, so I will share it with you now.

999 Text Messaging

First of all, if you are not aware, you can use a mobile phone to summon emergency services by texting a message to ‘999’. However, you must first register the phone for the 999 Text Service. To do this, simply send an SMS message to ‘999’ with only the word ‘Register’ as the message. Then wait for the reply and follow any instructions.

I have known about this for a number of years and registered my phone a long while ago. But until this season I have never had cause to use it.

Advantages of 999 Text Messaging in a Mountain Rescue Situation

There are a number of advantages of using an SMS to call emergency services. Three really stand out in a mountain rescue scenario.

  • Most of the UK’s mountain areas suffer from poor, or non-existent, mobile phone coverage. Compared to a city, you are much more likely to be in an area with no coverage. You might have a patchy, intermittent, weak signal. If there is really no coverage at all, then 999 Text Messaging won’t help anyway. You will have to move to find a signal. But if you have a weak or intermittent signal, then a 999 SMS could literally be a life-saver. There may not be a strong enough signal to establish or maintain a voice call. However, sending a written SMS message takes only the slightest signal for a second or two.
  • A common feature of mountains is the wind. Even a moderate wind can make it difficult for two people to conduct a voice call. They are likely to need lots of repetition – or make unidentified errors. A text message, on the other hand, can be read clearly.
  • One of the well-known drawbacks with mobile phones is the fact that their batteries drain and shut down in very cold temperatures. Holding a mobile phone in the cold winter air for even a few minutes can drain the battery very quickly. (Carrying a charging pack can help alleviate this.)

The Incident

A few weeks ago, high on a Scottish summit on a windy, cold winter’s day, I was guiding two clients. Just ahead of us, a member of another party slipped and went on an uncontrolled slide down the steep mountainside. They disappeared from view.

I spoke briefly with their guide and we quickly agreed what each of us should do.

This conversation left me with responsibility for my own two clients, the remaining people in his group, and the task of raising the alarm with mountain rescue.

Because of the three reasons that I mentioned above – poor signal, strong wind and cold temperatures – I immediately opted for using 999 Text Messaging rather than trying to place a voice call.

The Outcome

It all ended well.

The person who slipped fell several hundred metres down a steep icy slope and ended up, amazingly, with relatively minor injuries (in the big scheme of things). It could have been much, much worse. But they did still need to be carried out on a stretcher by the mountain rescue team.

Roles and Responsibilities

My 999 Text Message gave the local mountain rescue team the basic information that they needed to launch the rescue. However, having never sent one before, I was not fully familiar with how this would work in practice. In particular, the hand-over between the 999 call handlers and the regional police was something I knew nothing about.

There was then a text ‘conversation’ (while I was battling the wind, looking after several people, and trying to conserve my phone battery) while the call handlers tried to fill in some of the gaps – for example not knowing where ‘Glencoe’ is. I felt sure that once the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team had my message, they would understand it. But in the meantime, even though I mentioned Glencoe MRT in the text, the 999 call handlers (who could be anywhere) were clearly unsure how to direct the message and wanted to clarify which country I was in. This is something I can totally understand (they are not mountaineers), but I certainly had not anticipated. They did work it out for themselves before too long!

The Old Ways are the Best

It’s often said that they old ways are the best, and sometimes with good reason. I can still remember my teenage years doing DofE Expeditions. We had to learn how to prepare a hand-written note with all the details for a mountain rescue team. We might then have had to walk out of the mountain area to the red telephone box to make our 999 call.

So why, oh why, had I not thought of doing this before?

Making a Template for Sending a 999 Text Message

On the day in question, it was bitterly cold with a strong wind and my phone signal kept coming and going with just one ‘bar’. So, with freezing fingers and wet phone screen, I typed out my 999 Text Message. It all worked out well, but left questions unanswered and some information unclear to the recipients. On re-reading my messages, I was even amused to see that I had explained that I would escort all the ‘uninsured’ group members off the mountain. I meant ‘uninjured’ of course.

So now I have prepared a template ready in ‘Notes’ (I’m an iPhone user). You can use whatever other phone app best suits the job. When there is a next time, all the main headings of the information that the Police and Mountain Rescue will need are there. I just need to fill in the blanks with locations, descriptions, my plan for what to next etc.

Then I can just copy-and-paste the completed template into my message app and send to 999.

What You Should Do Now

  • Register your phone for 999 Text Messaging. Do that right away if you haven’t already done so.
  • Prepare your own template for a Mountain Rescue call out. Start with your name and mobile phone number and then create headings for all the information that they might need. Save it somewhere handy on your phone.