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911 emergency texting service rolls out in county


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Many Bartholomew County residents are now able to text 911 dispatchers for help, local and state emergency officials said.

Verizon Wireless customers could begin using the new text-to-911 services Wednesday, said Ed Reuter, Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center director.

Other cellphone providers were working quickly to match the service.

 

The new technology, designed and built by INdigital Telecom of Fort Wayne, was expected to become available to customers of T-Mobile and Sprint by the end of next week, while AT&T is hopeful it would be able to provide text-to-911 services within a month, said Barry Ritter, Statewide 911 Board executive director.

Emergency responders say text-to-911 services are especially important if the caller is deaf, hearing- or speech-impaired, or unable to speak due to a medical condition such as a stroke, Reuter said.

The service also would be valuable if the caller feels it’s unsafe to speak, as in the case of an abduction, hostage situation or home invasion, Ritter said.

Originally, Bartholomew County was supposed to be one of only four Indiana test sites for the new technology.

“But the rollout has moved at such a rapid pace that many carriers and counties began to take immediate steps to have their service turned on,” said Ritter, who said technical snags are preventing many carriers and counties from moving as fast as they would like.

As of midweek, dispatchers in 28 of Indiana’s 92 counties had been equipped and trained to handle text-to-911 calls, and the service will be implemented as soon as carriers are able to install the technology, Ritter said.

Here’s how it is supposed to work:

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

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, Reuter said.

Since people are more likely to respond to a text inquiry than a voice message, the new system is expected to help dispatchers determine if they have received an accidental call, such as a child playing with a cellphone, Ritter said.

While 66 Indiana counties are at various stages of implementing the service, Ritter said three of the state’s most populated counties — Marion, Lake and St. Joseph — are holding off as they deal with operational issues or consolidation of their 911 centers.

Besides helping those with speech and hearing impediments, there are other scenarios where text-to-911 services could save lives or injuries, said Dennis Moats, Bartholomew County Emergency Preparedness director.

“Any disaster scene is going to be full of noise and commotion,” Moats said. “During those events, it can become very tough for a dispatcher to hear or understand the caller. In those cases, I could see how text-to-911 could become an invaluable tool.”

Moats said he believes as more local residents get used to using text-to-911 services, more practical uses will become evident.

However, since it takes 20 to 30 seconds longer to make a text-to-911 call than a traditional voice call, residents should use the texting option only when a voice call is not an option, Ritter said.

Voice calls also allow dispatchers to more accurately locate the source of a call, detect vocal inflections, and allow them to hear the environment or other clues they can pass on to first responders headed to the scene, Ritter said.

For those reasons, the state 911 Board believes it’s best to let the 911 centers initiate texting, rather than the original caller, Ritter said.

Anyone who attempts to text 911 in a county that doesn’t have the texting capability will receive a bounce-back message saying to call 911, Ritter said.

Since the number of counties and carriers offering text-to-911 services is changing at a rapid rate, the state 911 director suggests that interested south-central Indiana residents keep themselves updated by referring to an online map available at in911.net.

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