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Editorial: Texting to 911 strong alternative for safety

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Johnson County has made an important addition to its emergency notification toolkit. Residents now can text 911 dispatchers for help.

In these high-tech times, it’s surprising that emergency texting wasn’t an option far sooner for counties such as ours. Nevertheless, providing another way for residents to seek help during emergency situations is beneficial.

A phone call is still the preferred way for a caller to alert a dispatcher about an emergency because vocal inflections and background sounds can give dispatchers helpful clues to pass on to first responders. Phone calls also are faster, as texts take an additional 20 to 30 seconds to be transmitted.

However, text-to-911 services have a particular benefit for people who are unable to call a dispatcher for help. That would include people who are deaf, hearing- or speech-impaired, or unable to speak due to a medical condition such as a stroke.

It also would include callers who are afraid to speak, such as those who have been abducted or are in a hostage situation or home invasion.

Texting is also helpful at disaster scenes, as an explosion or house fire can be noisy, making it difficult for dispatchers to hear what callers are saying. In the future, people also could text photos to dispatchers, such as if they came upon a serious accident on the highway.

When dispatchers receive a text message, it will open a chat window on their computer so they can message back and forth with the person in need, county 911 director Mike Watkins said. That method is slower, so if people choose to text 911, they should try to include as much information as possible in the first message, especially an address of where to send help, he said.

Dispatchers won’t be able to pinpoint your location like they would if you called from your cellphone or landline, he said.

Originally, just four Indiana test sites were planned for the new technology, designed and built by INdigital Telecom of Fort Wayne. The fact that dispatchers in 28 of Indiana’s 92 counties already had been equipped and trained to handle the text-to-911 calls shows how valuable this technology is to emergency personnel.

Since the county already has an emergency notification system that uses texts, emails and phone calls to inform residents of potentially dangerous situations, it makes perfect sense to also provide residents with the text-to-911 option.

In matters of public safety, there’s no such thing as having too many emergency notification measures. For some users and in some situations, the ability to text to 911 fills a vital gap in the emergency communications network.

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