Apr 06 2015

Eagle County, Colo., Joins the Text-to-911 Converts

With text messaging cementing its place as an essential form of communication, public-safety organizations are starting to accept 911 texts in addition to 911 calls.

Like it or not, text messaging is here to stay. Among the millennial set, it’s even more entrenched, with a November 2014 Gallup poll finding that “[m]ore than two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds say they sent and received text messages ‘a lot’ the previous day.”

If the youth are in love with texting now, then public-safety agencies must embrace texting for the future as this generation ages. So in January, Eagle County, Colo., rolled out the ability for its residents to text 911, in addition to calling in, GCN reported.

The county has yet to receive a 911 text. Perhaps such is life on the bleeding edge of technology.

“We wanted to offer that functionality to our citizens because it was something that was already expected,” said Jennifer Kirkland, operations support supervisor at the Vail Public Safety Communications Center. “It’s also something that we wanted to offer for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It gives them parity of access to 911, where they don’t have to call a relay service or use a TDD machine. They can just access 911 like any other citizen.”

Using the technology is relatively straightforward for both the person texting the service and the operator receiving the text, GCN reported:

When someone texts 911, TCS routes the message to the correct Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), or 911 center. A chime and a visual alert then opens a chat session on the PSAP worker’s web browser. Staff can reply by typing on the keyboard or selecting a pre-written message from a drop-down menu.

Interestingly, Kirkland points out that texting is not ideal in all situations because responders miss out on nonverbal cues, such as a sharp tone of voice or fast speaking pace.

The Federal Communications Commission is supporting the Text-to-911 initiative, and it hopes to make the service “widely available in the United States.” The agency tracks localities that have implemented Text-to-911 in an Excel spreadsheet, so text enthusiasts in public safety can keep an eye out for when the service is available in their county or city.