New 911 option proves merit

The Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center is crediting its 911 system — with voice and text capabilities — for quickly getting help to a caller in a domestic violence situation.

A 911 caller did not speak to the center dispatcher after initially placing a distress call on the night of March 1. However, the open line allowed the dispatcher to hear a heated disturbance in the background, indicating possible distress, according to a news release from the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department.

Moments later, the dispatcher received a text message from the same person requesting police assistance, according to the release.

Due to GPS tracking technology, deputies were already en route to a rural Elizabethtown residence from where the cellphone call was placed when the dispatcher used the text information to fill in officers on what was happening inside, the release stated.

Afterward, Mark W. Warriner, 43, of Columbus was taken into custody and charged with criminal confinement and two counts of battery.

Text-to-911 services are important if the caller feels it is unsafe to speak, as in the case of an abduction, hostage situation or home invasion, Indiana 911 Board Executive Barry Ritter said.

But they are also important if the caller is deaf, hearing- or speech-impaired or unable to speak due to a medical condition such as a stroke.

The new emergency technology introduced last summer is rapidly gaining popularity in the Columbus area.

During the first eight weeks of this year, the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center sent 497 outgoing ‘Text-to-911’ messages to local residents.

Most of those calls were described by center deputy director Julie Pierce as either 911 disconnects or accidental pocket dials.

However, the center has received 22 messages back through the service, center director Ed Reuter said. In comparison with the last six months of last year, that’s almost a 48 percent increase in incoming texts to the center.

That’s significant because it shows more people are aware of the service and are starting to use it, Pierce said.

While Bartholomew County was one of only a handful of sites in the test phase last year, Text-to-911 services are now being used in 80 of Indiana’s 92 counties, Reuter said.

By choosing the Columbus area as a test site, the state received an unexpected benefit.

A new way for the text-messaging software to communicate with the existing dispatch system was developed by Craig Pekar, systems administrator for the Bartholomew County Information Technology Department.

What was originally intended as an interfacing “fix” now has become widely used by many agencies — an improvement that has been lauded by technology experts, the release stated.

Reuter credits education, as well as public awareness generated by the media, for the program’s growing success in Bartholomew County.

How text-to-911 works

Instead of cellphone users attempting to send a direct text message to dispatchers, people in need are first asked to dial 911 in a traditional voice call. If there is no voice provided, the software in the dispatch center will establish a texting link.  

If the caller confirms by text that there is an emergency, the system will automatically provide prepared questions to allow dispatchers to quickly ascertain the problem.

Source: Bartholomew County 911 Emergency Operations Director Ed Reuter.   

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.