A bit of history occurred Monday morning when a text message popped up on a computer screen in the Wise County Sheriff’s Office.
The text on the screen, sent by a cell phone to 911, read: “Today we make history.”
The text back from 911 read simply: “Where is your emergency?”
On Monday, Wise County became the only county in Texas – and one of only a handful in the entire nation – with a 911 system capable of receiving emergency calls by text message. It functions just like a normal text message, except you send it to the number 911.
Dispatchers for the Sheriff’s Office, Decatur Police Department and Bridgeport Police Department can now receive text to 911. The 911 text option should be used only for emergency situations requiring police, fire or emergency medical personnel.
The option is currently available only to people who have Verizon as their wireless carrier, and who report an emergency in the county. If a non-Verizon user or even a Verizon customer outside the county lines tries the service, it will not work, and an error or bounce-back message will occur.
The other major carriers, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, should come online later this year or by sometime in 2014 at the latest.
The program, called Text-to-911, was first introduced in 2010 by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski. He said in December that all four major carriers, which serve 90 percent of all cell phone users in the country, will have the option available by May 15, 2014.
There are multiple reasons to adapt texting technology to making 911 emergency calls. School shootings are one of them.
“We have evidence that this could have helped victims in school shootings as far back as the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting,” said Christy Williams, a 911 program officer with North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG). “Students were trying to text for help because speaking wasn’t safe.”
With an active shooter in the area, several students tried to quietly text 911, but the texts went nowhere. That changed Monday in Wise County.
“There is also a need for the deaf and hard of hearing to get in touch with 911,” said Williams. “This will really help them. A group of the deaf and hard of hearing recently approached Congress about this issue.”
Williams’ efforts allowed NCTCOG to become one of the first places to acquire the Text-to-911 technology. The close relationship NCTCOG shares with Wise County prompted them to first test the new technology here.
Starting out, there will be some limitations. Unlike the current 911 system that tracks an approximate location of the caller, the text-to-911 is not yet capable of that.
People texting 911 must include location when they text.
Decatur Police Chief Rex Hoskins said the technology will be beneficial to young people who know nothing but texting.
“Even elementary students have cell phones these days,” Hoskins said.
But, he added, all the abbreviations and acronyms and text-speak some people use might make it hard for dispatchers to understand.
Williams said it is important that people avoid those shortcuts.
“Kids use a different kind of lingo in text messages,” Willams said. “They need to make sure they learn to use plain language when texting in an emergency.”
“The good thing is you can go back and read the texts rather than having to play back a recording,” Hoskins said.
Wise County dispatchers have been training to use the text-to-911 system for months now.
“The good thing is our dispatchers work with all three agencies,” said Bridgeport Police Chief Randy Singleton. “Communication is the key to everything.”
“This is a big issue for us, especially after what happened in Connecticut,” said Bridgeport ISD Superintendent Eddie Bland. “When you do something new, you always kind of dread it, but in a real situation this will be invaluable.”
He added that Bridgeport is almost entirely covered by AT&T, and he’s looking forward to the other providers picking up the service.
Williams said school districts and businesses could purchase a Verizon phone, even a pay-as-you-go-phone, to have on hand in case of an emergency requiring a text to 911.
“We appreciate the Sheriff’s Office so much doing anything they can to increase communication, especially in a community like Paradise that doesn’t have police officers,” said Paradise ISD Superintendent Monty Chapman.