Who’s texting to 911?

The texts have come from a couple in a heated argument to a hearing-impaired person having a medical emergency.

Since the county began allowing people in need of help to text 911 just more than a year ago, the service has been used about 50 times. And officials say it is helping people because in most instances, the service was used by someone who needed the police or other emergency workers.

“The use is very little right now, but the (texts) we are getting warrant the use of text-to-911,” Johnson County 911 director Ryan Rather said. “We are getting a lot of situations where it’s domestic violence and the victim wants to get law enforcement started without the other person knowing — that’s getting more common.”

The recent tragedy in Orlando, where 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at a dance club, is a perfect example of a situation where text-to-911 could be vital, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said.

In that type of situation, where someone may be hiding in fear of being discovered and possibly killed, texting 911 is a quiet, discrete way to pass along details to police and emergency workers so that they can get into the building sooner. They can also get a better idea of what they’re facing, such as the number of shooters and what kind of weapons they have, Cox said.

“With all that’s going on in the world today, if someone is hiding in a bad situation and they can send a text in private, it may save (lives),” Cox said. “Anything that can give us an idea on the way to the scene is helpful.”

Last year, Johnson County became one of 80 counties in the state to begin using text-to-911 services, allowing residents with a cellphone the ability to text their emergency to a 911 dispatch center when they may not be able to make a phone call. The Text-to-911 program was introduced by the Federal Communications Commission in 2012. Indiana, which was one of the first states to adopt the program, is one of about 20 states that have the service.

Since April 2015, when the county added the emergency texting service, the majority of texts to 911 were for domestic disputes, Rather said. Before, the victim might not have made a 911 call because of the fear that the other person would hear them on the phone, potentially escalating the violence, Rather said.

The rest of the texts have come from hearing-impaired callers, Rather said.

Rather anticipates the amount of people who text 911 to increase, he said. As more people use it, they’ll talk about it and residents will become aware that they have the option to text 911 if they need to, Rather said.

And officials are continuing to look at ways to improve the service, including allowing someone to send photos, Rather said.

The person needing help could send a photo of a person who needs medical attention or a car accident at an intersection. That would allow firefighters and medics — who never know the extent of an emergency until they get to the scene — to have a better idea of the severity of the emergency they’re heading to, Rather said.

Dispatchers still prefer phone calls, whenever possible, he said. But if texting 911 is the best option in an emergency, it’s important to give as much information as possible and to always include your address or the location of the accident in the first text, he said.

During the first months of the service, dispatchers were having trouble getting firefighters, medics and police to emergencies because the texts didn’t pinpoint a specific location or address, Rather said. When a 911 phone call is placed, the location where the call is being made from shows on the dispatcher’s computer, but with a text message there’s no way to tell where the text is coming from, Rather said.

When a person texts 911, the dispatcher will text back from their computer and request more information. They know the person texting may not be able to provide anything beyond the initial text, and that’s why providing an address in the first message is vital to response time, Rather said.

“The most important thing is getting a location. No matter what the emergency is, the most important thing for someone to send is they need help and an address,” Rather said. “If you aren’t able to send any (information), just send an address, and we will get an officer to that location.”

How It Works

Who to text: Anyone with an emergency can enter 911 as the contact they are trying to text.

Who will get it: Your text will go a county dispatcher, who will see the text come up on their computer screen in a chat-style window.

What to say: Be sure to tell the dispatcher the location of your emergency first and then describe the situation in more detail. If you can only send one text, be sure to include the address or location of the emergency.

How they will respond: Dispatchers have a list of pre-programmed responses they can use, including “Where is your emergency?”

How they will find you: Dispatchers will use the location you give them and send emergency workers to the scene, even if they don’t know the details of the emergency.

Author photo
Corey Elliot is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at celliot@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2719.