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Text 911 is going national

Published: Thursday, May 22, 2014 11:01 a.m. CDT

WATERLOO (MCT) — A pilot program started in Black Hawk County for a new wave of emergency communication is going nationwide.

Text-to-911 allows people to send text messages to report emergencies, a crucial step for the nation's emergency dispatch system. Voice-only technology dates back to the 1960s.

Since the emergency text option was adopted in June 2009, other communities have followed suit. Local governments in 16 other states now offer it, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Judy Flores, director of Black Hawk County's Consolidated Communication Center in Waterloo, said the service has worked well.

At the time the center was approached to be a pilot location, it had just purchased a cutting-edge phone program knowing it would enable text service.

"We knew it was coming," Flores said. "We wanted to stay ahead of the game and be more proactive than reactive to the technology."

But Flores did not expect to receive at least a dozen calls per week from other communities asking how the service works.

"We had no idea we were going to get people looking to us to see how it was working to set the tone for it," she said.

Today the county's Consolidated Communications Center receives four to five emergency text messages per month on average.

The first emergency text Flores remembers receiving involved domestic abuse. The female victim felt her life was in danger when her ex-boyfriend broke into her home.

"You don't want them to hear you call because you don't know how they're going to react," Flores said.

Calling for help was not an option in this case. Instead, the woman hid and texted 911. Police officers arrived and arrested the man for violation of a no-contact order.

Most 911 texts received are for domestic abuse, according to Flores.

Other scenarios where text 911 can help include:

-- Active shooter.

-- Abduction.

-- Home invasion.

-- Natural disaster disabling telephone service.

-- Victims with speech or hearing disabilities.

Iowa is set to adopt the service statewide in the next few weeks.

Four major wireless phone companies -- Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T -- are providing text-to-911 service to local governments that want it and have the capability to use it. Currently though, iWireless is the only carrier that has signed on in Black Hawk County.

Flores attributes the small volume of texts received on the lack of prominent providers.

The FCC is requiring all service providers to offer it by the end of the year. Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management is working with the state to get the four largest providers to sign on. Flores expects that to happen within the next month.

Brian Fontes, the chief executive officer of the Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association, said the four major carriers offering text-to-911 is "a big deal."

Fontes said 911 texting is part of a broader push to use technology to enhance the information provided to emergency responders and to put emergency call centers on an equal footing with technology many people carry in their pockets.

Some professional sports teams already allow fans to report unruly behavior inside stadiums and arenas through texting, while law enforcement has started using text messaging during standoff negotiations.

"It's been a long time -- years, decades -- since our nation's 911 systems have been advanced," Fontes said. "They are pretty much still almost 100 percent voice-centric, 1960s technology."

Vermont is one of the few states with a statewide emergency 911 phone system, making rollout easier.

Like Black Hawk County, the number of people using text 911 there is small -- there have only been 34 legitimate 911 texts for help since Vermont started using the system, compared to 208,000 911 voice calls last year.

But David Tucker, executive director of Vermont's Enhanced 911 board, notes it has saved at least one life after dispatchers received a text about a suicide-by-hanging in progress.

Black Hawk County's Flores said texting should not be used in lieu of making a voice call if possible. Phone calls are still preferred because it allows dispatchers to hear clues in background noise and the caller's tone of voice.

There is also the concern that texts will be lost, delayed or received out of order.

The FCC tells people to limit texts for help to circumstances when voice calls can't be made. The text-to-911 service is now limited to text only -- photos, videos and location information will have to wait for the next generation of the technology.

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The Associated Press contribute to this article.

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©2014 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)

Visit Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) at www.wcfcourier.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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