LINCOLN, Nebraska — New technology that lets cellphone users send texts to their local 911 call center is spreading through Nebraska, including rural areas where supporters say it could help save lives.
The service is already in place around Omaha and Kearney, but smaller counties are now asking the state for money to add the service at their facilities.
Douglas, Buffalo and Washington counties have all implemented text-to-911 services this year, and at least six others — Keith, Dodge, Antelope, Dawes, Sarpy and Sheridan — filed funding requests to install it in their jurisdictions, according to the Nebraska Public Service Commission.
The service is intended to help people who can't call authorities directly, such as domestic violence victims who don't want their assailants to overhear them, or those who are hiding from a home invader.
It also could serve tornado victims when local phone systems become overwhelmed or people in rural areas with poor coverage, said Jeff Pursley, executive director of the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Unlike calls that won't connect, phones will continuously try to send a text message until the network allows it.
Pursley said the expansion of services is part of a broader state effort to adopt Next Generation 911 — a system that allows callers to send photos, videos and text messages to emergency responders.
"This is a very important tool," Pursley said. "I think (text-to-911) was certainly something we needed to do and that the public expected."
Pursley said counties aren't required to adopt text to 911 services, but many have chosen to do so because funding is available through the Public Service Commission. The costs vary by county.
Antelope County is adopting the system as part of a roughly $250,000 upgrade of its radio and 911 services. Sheriff Bob Moore said the county decided to include text-to-911 services to give callers more options, although it won't be installed for another 30 to 45 days.
"We know it's the next thing coming, and we just wanted to get ahead of it," he said.
Callers in Buffalo County have only used text-to-911 three times for legitimate calls, including one woman who reported an assault, said Sheriff's Lt. Robert Tubbs, the department's communications supervisor. The county activated its system in January.
Tubbs said the county adopted the system early because it wanted to ensure people with hearing impairments had a way to contact authorities. Officials also considered students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, who are younger and more comfortable texting.
"It had been on our radar, and we felt it was important," he said.
Text-to-911 will become available in a sizable part of central and western Nebraska once Keith County activates its service. Because the surrounding area is so rural, the Ogallala-based emergency center also provides service to Arthur, Deuel, Grant, Hooker, Logan, McPherson and Perkins counties.
Cellphone service is spotty in the region, so texting may provide the public another way to contact authorities, said Pete Peterson, who oversees emergency communications for the region. Peterson said he expects more changes as the technology evolves.
"This is just another piece of the puzzle," he said.