Texting an emergency call to 911 may be on the horizon for Surry County, but a top emergency official said the best way to reach 911 will always be by telephone.
“The 911 industry is working toward texting/video/pictures to 911 centers. This has been in the works for some time and we are getting closer and closer every day. We do support the idea of texting to 911 or sending video feeds to the 911 center for those situations where the caller can’t speak, however we still prefer the voice calls if possible,” said Jonathan Bledsoe, director of the Surry 911 Communications Center. “We want to speak to the caller directly on the phone to get better information regarding the situation at hand.”
According to Bledsoe, the glaring gap in the emergency call service was first exposed by the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 when text messages from students fleeing the crazed gunman went nowhere. Students trapped in classrooms during the school shooting couldn’t risk speaking into their cell phones but would have been able to text their location. Thirty-two people died in the deadly rampage.
Bledsoe also said that texting 911 could be helpful in situations on motor vehicle accidents where placards off of tractor-trailers (or other vehicles in wrecks) can be sent to 911 via video/picture text to help emergency officials get a better understanding of what units are heading towards.
Also supporting the development of a text to 911 feature is the Elkin Police Department. Surry 911 automatically passes (drops) all emergency calls within town limits to the Elkin Police Department, but it is unknown if text messages, pictures and video can be dropped to Elkin at the same speed. It is unknown if any internal upgrades to Elkin’s communications hub would be necessary.
Regardless of the challenges, Elkin’s brass wants the service.
“The county’s ability to receive video and pictures will be an invaluable service to first responders and law enforcement… When the system is in place, emergency services will be able to see what the caller is talking about. We will be able to better judge our response and what is needed at the scene,” said Capt. Kim Robison with the Elkin Police Department. “Calls are always preferable. It gives the telecommunicator the opportunity to ask questions. However, it may not always be feasible for the individual to call 911. They may be in a situation where it’s more practical, for safety reasons, to text 911.
“We currently do not have to capabilities to receive text, but we are in the process of requesting this feature from our phone providers,” said Bledsoe. The four major providers are Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T. They voluntarily committed to providing the service by May 15. The FCC has required all service providers to offer it by the end of the year.
“We want to make it very clear. We are only making texting to 911 available to 911 call centers who request it,” said Richard Taylor, executive director, Office of Information Technology Services, NC 911 Board. “Also, everyone should know that texting does not operate on the same network as your cell phone. It’s a totally different system. It’s only coming together because the phone carriers have absorbed this project at no cost to taxpayers.”
Taylor said that the 911 Board does not anticipate pictures and video services to 911 call centers. “Some next generation centers could get there, but we are not looking at that option right now.”
Taylor said the three options to 911 call centers are a text to TTY/TDD option (Telecommunications Device for The Deaf), a Web Portal solution for those centers with Internet access, and the NG9-1-1 Interface.
Public chimes in
Elkin Tribune Facebook followers chimed in saying they see the need for a text to 911 feature.
Nina Vangordan said, “Just think of all those Columbine kids where the whole school was literally locked down. Kids hiding wherever they could. Texting 911 would’ve been valuable in that type of crisis where the perpetrators couldn’t see or hear them notifying the police. Kidnapping situation would be valuable, too.”
Kelly Gentry said, “Texting may come in handy if you were in an emergency where someone broke in your house… I would do whichever way was easier at time of an emergency.”
Desiree Swaim said text to 911 would depend on the situation. “Say if someone was trapped in a closet, they could text 911 easier than calling. That way they wouldn’t be heard talking by their captor,” she wrote.
Preparing for challenges
According to Bledsoe, the texting feature does add major obstacles.
“The bad thing about texting to 911 is currently there is no way to plot that phone as we can a voice call. These texts would come into the 911 center very similar to a TDD/TTY message,” said Bledsoe. Plotting is a term used by communications to determine the exact location of the phone.
Another obstacle is cost and training. “It would be some expense to us, but I’m unsure of the exact cost. Yes, I think once we start pushing this out, we are going to be overwhelmed with text/photos,” Bledsoe said.
“It will probably double if not triple our workloads,” said Bledsoe.
Taylor said the ability for responders to only have a “nearest tower” instead of an exact location impedes on response time. The texting ability requires users to give an exact location and be very specific. He also said that if a 911 call center in the area of the emergency does not have the capability to receive text to 911, phone companies will bounce-back the text instructing the user to call 911.
“The most important thing to remember in all of this is call (911) if you can, and text if you can’t,” said Taylor.
Anthony Gonzalez may be reached at 336-835-1513 or on Twitter @newsgonz.