Local governments in 16 states are turning to four major cellular providers to provide communities the capability to send text messages to 911 to report incidences or emergencies.
Advocates of the technology say that 911 texting is part of a broader push to use the technology to enhance provided information to emergency responders, and to put emergency call centers on an equal footing with the technology many people carry in their pockets. Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and AT&T voluntarily committed to providing the service as of May 15.
In Preble County, however, mixed reactions to the technology are felt throughout the emergency responder community.
“It’s one of those things where the communication technology is there, and the cell phone companies have the ability … we don’t have that technology yet,” said Eaton Police Chief Chad DePew. “We had a pretty big upgrade in 2004 … and we had another 911 upgrade just two years ago and neither one of those included the 911 technology, or the upgrades. So, we don’t have the capability to do that yet, but we would hope that the next time we’re able to do some 911 updates, that we could be able to include that part of the software, because I think that’s going to be an important element to 911. It’s one of those things, I think, actually dialing 911 and the voice calls are what people are more likely to use, because in an emergency, it’s easy to punch those numbers in and talk to somebody, to explain the emergency, as opposed to text it, but texting may help us to reach a different, or wider audience,” said Chief DePew.
“It’s one of those things where we can’t just jump on the bandwagon for every technological change that comes out,” said Eaton Fire Chief Jack Royer. “Receiving a text based on emergencies, that opens up a whole can of worms for false calls, and prank calls, and things like that.”
“It’ll be coming to us, I’m sure in the near future, so we’re just kind of monitoring what the cell phone providers are doing, and we’ll be working with our 911 provider to make sure that we’ve got the upgrades and stuff that we need,” said Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson, who said he would like to see the change come through the County within eight to twelve months. “The big thing is, are the wireless carriers ready? Is their equipment in our County ready to provide the service? That’s the big thing; once they give us the thumbs up, then we’ll do what we need to do to move towards that.”
Authorities who have tested the technology say text messages do not pinpoint locations nearly as well as phone calls. Other reservations regarding the change have authorities talking as well, such as the slower speed of communication between the texter and the dispatch center. This crucial amount of time could impact the way responders do their job. “Not having a live caller on the other end of the phone creates some challenges,” said Chief Royer.
“What’s actually being seen — can they actually translate that into a simple text message that makes sense for an appropriate level of response? If you’re in the rural area and you get an address or a home, or something that’s not clearly marked. Then you’ll have delays simply because you don’t have a caller that can quickly identify crossroads or where the vehicle is off the roadway or in a car crash scenario, how many injuries, how serious the injuries are, and so on and so fourth, where you can keep a caller on the line, and gather information that allows any response agent to send the appropriate units.”
“Obviously, the best way to get information to a 911 dispatcher is through voice; we can ask questions, things of that nature, we can get the location on your wireless, if you’re using a land line phone, we know where that’s at but there are circumstances maybe you have somebody who is speech impaired where texing may be the only way that they can communicate; that could be great for them. Or in the event where someone is being held against their will, maybe they’re in a situation where talking may give away where they’re at, they’re not in a position where they can talk, but they can type. That would be a great scenario for that. It’s just technology that we’ll have to work through,” said Simpson.
Photo and video material could also be sent to responders to better illustrate the severity, or detail of the situation. The footage would be considered a legitimate piece of evidence, according to authorities.
“Inside the city limits, with our response times being pretty short, the question would be if we even had time to pull [a video] up,” said Chief Royer.
“I think photos and video are down the road,” said Sheriff Simpson. “I think that first step is text message. But it’s all coming, it’s just a matter of how quickly the 911 backbone can keep up with technology that’s out there.”
“I think there’s definitely situations where it would help. Maybe someone’s in a life-threatening scenario. Say, they’re in a scenario where somebody has a gun, or a weapon, or hiding somewhere. They may not be able to call us, but they could send us a photo or a video that would be important information as to how we respond. I imagine it’ll give us the same challenges the calls sometimes do,” said DePew.
Chief DePew said the system would be beneficial to his division’s operation, however, there is no timeline in place to adopt the technology.
The technology comes with a price tag and a lenghty installation, however, as well as taking into consideration the learning time for workers in the dispatch center.
“It’s really going to be up to the 911 centers to determine whether or not they’re going to do upgrades that would allow texting to be received,” said Royer. “My guess would be, in a comparable scenario, we just had the helicopter service that’s flying out of Indiana for an in-service … they actually have a smartphone app so that emergency providers can activate a helicopter response from the scene. It’s a matter of how it’s going to blend with what we’ve currently got,” Royer said.
“I think the first round of technology coming out, is the ability to get a text message- to get the actual message- we’ll work to get that software in here, to be able to not only receive it, but to communicate back and fourth with whoever is sending the text message,” said Sheriff Simpson. “One of the barriers is right now, you may be able to text 911 to provide them with information, but right now, they might not be able to verify via text where your phone’s at.”
“Calls are routed based on your geographic location,” said DePew. “So texting would have to work that same way.”
“I’m going to guess that we’re going to need instant access to the same computer screen that the dispatcher would send it out on, and that’s a significant amount of money. To outfit everyone with that kind of technology. The longer it’s around, the more reasonable it is,” Royer said. “It’s not something in current economical conditions that would be a high priority. One of the things I’d be more interested in, in terms of a technology standpoint, would be things related to emergency medicine, where we can be in immediate contact with an emergency room physician where we can transmit a variety of different health care-related diagnosis and better treat an EMS situation.”
Authorities believe it may be best to wait for other counties to test the technology, as they could share the learned insight before introducing it to Preble County.
“You also want to make sure, that because this technology is new, to get the bugs out first. Certainly, if you turn on a product, you want it to work,” said Simpson.
“When they make the upgrades, there’s always opportunities when the bugs get worked out to do add on’s, once the base 911 system is capable of doing some of those things,” Royer said.
“We’re still working collectively as a county-wide group to look at a possible dispatch merger between both our dispatch center, and the Sheriff’s Office dispatch center. If that were to happen, and we were able to get county-wide levy funds, to support 911 functions, that would certainly help us reach that goal maybe sooner, but as of right now, I don’t know what the costs are, or how long it would take for us to get that,” DePew added. “We don’t always get large sums of money to do upgrades like that.”
“My opinion is, is each area of technology needs to be evaluated for it’s merits and prep it up against what the local needs are. If it’s needed, it’s cost-effective, and it’s going to be beneficial, then absolutely … You can’t just jump on every bandwagon and spend dollars, that’s just not a good use of resources,” said Royer.
Reflecting authority’s mixed emotions on the subject, citizens of Preble County shared the same thoughts.
“I really have an opinion to be honest with you,” said Kenny Rogers. “I’ve never had to call 911 before. Enough people call 911 for reasons that’s not necessary to begin with,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to be another outsource for people to text.” Rogers said the capability to take pictures and videos to send law enforcement would be “convenient”, and tax dollar-funding would be worth the services.
However, Chris Harper feels differently, saying he would not use the service if it were provided.
“I rarely call 911, but at the same time, in the times I’ve needed to, it’s just quicker and easier just to dial 911 and talk with them personally versus trying to type something out, which takes a little bit of time,” said Harper.
“I don’t think it would be any different if you were to actually see it happen and to pull out your camcorder on your phone and just calling them, and having them on a live feed.” Harper said the service would not be worth the tax dollars.