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Issue of October 15, 2014
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Emergency dispatchers can now use a chat box, above, to connect with people who need emergency assistance and are unable to make a telephone call. Currently, only Verizon customers can send text messages to 911; however, other cellular companies soon will have the same capability.

OMG FTW: 911 help is just a text away

June 11, 2014 | 07:43 AM

Starting with Verizon Wireless customers and eventually moving to other cellular phone carriers, some Harrison County residents can now text 911 for help through emergency dispatchers.

Through Indiana's coordinated approach to public safety, dispatch centers across the state are providing the public with access to 911 through the use of text messaging from their wireless handset.

Indigital Telecom of Fort Wayne designed, built and operate the IN911 network for the State 911 Board, which provides service to 911 agencies throughout the state.

Verizon Wireless and its technology partner, TeleCommunication Systems, is the first carrier to provide the service. Three other carriers — AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — have also voluntarily committed that they will provide service. Currently, customers of those wireless services cannot initially text information to dispatchers; however, dispatchers can send texts to wireless customers of those carriers.

The Federal Communications Commission wants all other wireless carriers to provide text-to-911 via texTTY by the end of the year.

"It's a helpful tool to add to our many duties as a dispatcher. TexTTY is a new program offered to help the people that can't speak up or are unable to make a phone call in the instances of an emergency," Harrison County dispatcher Sara Lopp said. "Even when we get 911 calls, we can use the texTTY resource to text people to make sure they are safe and don't need our assistance."

Chris Woertz, another county dispatcher, said that, if someone calls 911 and they hang up from a wireless number, dispatchers can return a call to that number or send a text, regardless of the carrier. If someone sends a text from a Verizon phone, a message box pops up on a dispatcher's screen.

Texts from dispatch are limited to 160 characters.

As Lopp typed in a response to a test text, a couple of different "help" questions automatically filled the text box, which can speed up the response process. Each text receives a time stamp in a chat box.

Currently, Harrison County joins Clark and Scott counties in offering the service. The texTTY service is pending in Washington and Floyd counties, while Crawford and Orange counties are still determining whether or not to use the service.

Customers should use the texting option only when calling 911 is not an option. Using a phone to call 911 is still the most efficient way to reach emergency help as texting is not always instantaneous, which is critical during a life-threatening emergency, dispatchers said. It may take slightly longer to dispatch emergency services in a text-to-911 situation because of the time involved: someone must enter the text, the message must go over the network and the 911 dispatcher must read the text and then text back.

Also, dispatchers will not be able to read exactly where a text comes from (though the text will "ping" off cell towers and give the location of the cell tower that was used to relay the message).

Communicating with 911 dispatchers by voice is more effective than text-to- 911. Using text should be limited to when calling 911 is not possible, such as if the caller is deaf or hearing- or speech-impaired; if a caller is otherwise unable to speak, because of a medical condition (such as a stroke); or if speaking would be unsafe, as in the case of abduction or home invasion.

Twitter: @_alanstewart

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