It’s not here yet, but Grand Traverse County is moving toward enabling 911 emergency texting, potentially within the next 90 days. “We are testing a texting 911 system,” says Jason Torrey, director of Grand Traverse Central Dispatch/911. “It will probably be in the second quarter of 2017.” Anyone within Grand Traverse County will be able then to text 911 in case of an emergency.
Torrey cites three situations where 911 texting could be invaluable: It can be used by persons with a hearing loss who can’t communicate easily by voice; in violent situations where it is dangerous to speak; or when the voice network is overloaded but a text can still get through. “All of those have presented themselves somewhere in the state with positive outcomes,” says Torrey.
It’s a complex implementation for both the 911 call centers and the cell carriers. The most crucial aspect is determining the precise location from which the emergency call is being made; that technology does not yet exist with texting. “In the days of everyone having a land line, when you called 911, it showed your address,” says Gregg Bird, the emergency management coordinator for Grand Traverse County. “With mobile phones, you could triangulate (locations) and be pretty accurate.” But with texting, the location is not immediately available.
“We took a step back when we went to cell phones. There’s no regular address (attached to it). You have to validate it,” says Torrey.
Torrey hopes technology will soon provide more accuracy in tracking location of calls or texts. “It’s a wide range, within 300 meters. That could be two city blocks. That’s why we have to validate it.” That can be particularly important in cities with high-rise buildings. “We need to increase accuracy in X, Y and Z (planes) – like which floor you’re on (when calling).”
Torrey adds that the county is learning from others. “We are getting a lot of feedback from those who have done it. One concern was a fear of getting inundated with texts. No one has been inundated. It’s being used appropriately.” Virtually every municipality with text-to-911 service has promoted the service with the slogan, “Call if you can, text if you can’t.”
Bird says even younger persons more comfortable with texting are more apt to call in an emergency. “We live in a very tech-savvy, gaming, texting society,” he says, but in an emergency, people want to talk to someone and be sure someone is getting their information.
Municipalities in Michigan and nationwide are at different in adoption of such a system. “About 50 percent of the state has some sort of solution,” says Torrey. One of the earliest adopters was Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “The U.P. already has it. It has set a standard for the state and the nation,” says Torrey.
He notes that texting is a two-way street: the emergency center can receive but also send texts. Outgoing texting is a way to validate calls that come in to 911 but fail to leave any information. “We get 911 hang-up calls and follow that up with a text and they’ll respond. That way we’re not using as many resources,” Torrey says.
Bird likens the ability to use texting for emergencies to acquiring another means to communicate in critical situations. “The more tools you can add to the tool box, the better off you are. This is another tool,” he says.