‘Plz hlp me’

By Jane Beathard

June 30, 2014

Sometime later this year, the Madison County Sheriff’s Operations Center will begin accepting text messages sent directly to 911. Currently, anyone texting 911 in the county receives an automated response to phone in, according to Sheriff Jim Sabin.

“We upgraded the countywide 911 system three years ago to be ‘next generation’ compliant,” Sabin said. “But the service is not yet available through all cell phone companies.”

Eight cellular vendors serve the county. All must add equipment to area transmission towers before dispatchers can pinpoint the location of someone texting for help. In addition, AT&T must upgrade nine trunk lines within the center, Sabin added.

He said future texting capability comes with both advantages and drawbacks.

It can be a life saver for the hearing impaired or in hostage situations where voice communication is dangerous.

Sabin cited incidents where victims are hiding from a burglar or a violent domestic partner as likely scenarios for texting 911. But a text should never replace a voice call if possible, he added.

“Phoning allows for faster, clearer communication between the dispatcher and the caller. With texting, information to the dispatcher is limited,” Sabin said.

London Police Dispatcher Troy Murray agrees.

In response to questions posed on The Madison Press Facebook page, Murray said 911 texts aren’t beneficial and may put officers in harm’s way.

“I need every detail I can get so I can relay that information to the officers responding. If I have to wait for a text that contains (additional) information that may keep one or more of my officers safe, it isn’t worth it. I couldn’t justify putting them at risk, because some ‘advancement’ in technology and the ever growing laziness that certain technology brings,” Murray said.

Susan Dunham’s Facebook comment questioned the cost of new equipment.

“Does the county really need to be spending money this way?” Dunham queried.

Michelle Day said on Facebook she thought the text option could be beneficial.

“It would be good for situations where someone couldn’t speak on the phone — for instance, if someone is breaking into your house and you’re hiding from that person or (during) domestic abuse cases,” she said. “Otherwise, I prefer to talk to a live person. That way I know they are sending help and I’m not waiting for a text or call back.”

Matt McCann, the county’s 911 coordinator, said unless a 911 text includes an address or precise location, response will be slower.

“We must first ask via text where the caller is, then wait for a response,” McCann said.

Sheryl Shaw said on Facebook that she called 911 recently and was “lucky to remember the answers to the dispatcher’s questions and respond verbally.”

“This (texting) would open up too many potential mistakes being provided, resulting in slow response time,” Shaw posted.

While 90 percent of Americans own a cell phone and 80 percent text, McCann emphasized a land line remains the best way to call 911.

“Land line calls display an address. Cell phones are not as reliable,” he said.

Towers and technology are the reasons.

Although most 911 calls come to the operations center via cell phones, dispatchers see only the tower from which they were transmitted, not the exact location of the caller. With a return “ping” to the tower, a dispatcher can better define that location — but not always, McCann explained.

Of the 1,235 calls to 911 received by the center during May, 972 came via cell phones. Dispatchers “pinged” 496 of those to an exact origin. The remaining 476 mapped only location of the nearest tower. Dispatchers and responders were forced to expend precious moments searching for the caller, he said.

In order to text 911, a cell phone user must have a valid contract. But calls to 911 can even be made on a deactivated cell phone as long as it contains a battery, McCann noted.

He expects to receive few 911 texts once the local capability is available.

Iowa’s Black Hawk County implemented 911 texting for half the state in 2009. Four years later, emergency dispatchers were receiving only about 10 texts a month, McCann said.

But changes in the way people communicate — especially young people — are bound to affect the local 911 system long term.

“The younger generation is more adept at texting and uses it more,” Sabin noted. “Demand (on 911) will increase.”

Jane Beathard can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 1616 or via Twitter @JaneBeathard.