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Emergency texting plan registers success

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An incident early Thursday morning is being recognized as the first significant success of a new emergency reporting system in Bartholomew County.

When the text-to-911 service was introduced in May, county officials said the option would be valuable if the caller thinks the situation is unsafe to speak, as in the case of an abduction, hostage situation or home invasion.

That was the case at 2:23 a.m. Thursday, when dispatcher Heather Burris Allen received a 911 call but couldn’t hear anyone on the other end of the line, said Sgt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman.

If a hang-up call is received or if the call is disconnected, new software in the dispatch center automatically establishes the texting link, said Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Center Director Ed Reuter.

After a text was sent to the caller asking whether she had an emergency, Allen received a reply message from a woman afraid to speak in fear of revealing her location to another person, Harris said. The woman’s message said:

“Yes. I’m at 914 Chestnut. Boyfriend won’t let me answer the door. Don’t text back,” the message stated. But that was sufficient information for Allen to dispatch officers to the residence, Reuter said.

When officers arrived, they learned the woman was hiding because her boyfriend had been threatening her with a knife, according to a police press release.

William D. Booker, 43, who lives at the residence, was arrested on charges of intimidation with a deadly weapon and domestic battery. Booker was taken to Bartholomew County Jail, where he was placed on a 48-hour hold, a jail spokeswoman said.

Text to 911 recommendations

Wireless customers should keep the following four points in mind when using text-to-911 services, according to the Indiana Statewide 911 Board.

Use the texting option only when calling 911 is not an option, due to an inability to speak.

Texting is not instantaneous, so it might take slightly longer to dispatch first responders due to the time involved in placing text-to-911 services.

Providing location information and the nature of the emergency in the first text message is imperative. Avoid text abbreviations or slang so the dialogue can be as clear a possible.

Text messages sent have a 160-character limit, as do other text messages.

Although the incident illustrates a dramatic and significant purpose for the text-to-911 service, emergency texting is especially important if the caller is deaf, hearing-, speech-impaired or unable to speak due to a medical condition such as a stroke, Reuter 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. The texting mode kicks in if there is no voice on the other end.

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, according to Barry Ritter, Statewide 911 Board executive director.

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 thinks it’s best to let the 911 centers initiate texting, rather than the original caller, Ritter said.

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