Emergency Text Messaging Signals Evolution in Public Safety Communication

Marion County, Fla., becomes latest to accept emergency calls via text message from people who need help but can't speak.

by / June 4, 2010

It's common knowledge that in case of emergency, you call 911. But what if you can't call out?

What if you're in a hostage situation, or hiding from a burglar in a closet at home? Such questions have floated around local law enforcement agencies for years as wireless phones continue to flood the market.

Taking advantage of the latest trends in technology, Marion County, Fla., has become the latest in the country to accept distress calls via text message. By texting a message to a Sheriff's Office phone number, residents who are in danger can reach emergency responders through the Communication Center. The Marion County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) advises that the new number should be used for serious situations, but only if calling 911 isn't an option.

"Call first, if you can," said Judge Cochran, MCSO's public information officer. "But put this secured phone number in your cell phone just in case you're in a scenario where you cannot talk."

Texting emergencies might seem like a commonsense solution. But most law enforcement agencies have yet to implement such a service, despite the fact that the U.S. sees 4.1 billion text messages per day, according to CTIA, The Wireless Association's 2009 semi-annual wireless industry survey. More police departments, however, have recognized that phones aren't just made for calling, as seen with the rise of text-a-tip crime-prevention programs. Last August, a 911 call center in Black Hawk, Iowa, reportedly became the first in the nation to start accepting emergency text messages.

"The adoption of texting by a 911 system is as good an indicator as any of the movement to a digital culture," Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, wrote in a blog post at "Accepting text messages is a huge change as it recognizes the expanding ways we communicate and adopt new communications technologies."

In Marion County, Cochran said, bad cell phone reception in rural stretches makes it harder to call out. The text messaging service, he added, will also help residents who may be speech- or hearing-impaired. Texting the secure number works like a regular 911 call. Once the Communication Center receives the message, operators determine the location of the caller and quickly dispatch the necessary responders. It cost Marion County $1,000 for computer equipment, Cochran said, and maintenance will cost about $50 a month. The key now is spreading the word.

"Part of what we're struggling against is people don't know," Cochran said. "They just assume that you can text 911. You can't do it."

Sending emergency alerts via text message signals the evolution of law enforcement, Kaiser said. In his blog post, he asked, "Could there be a day when we report crime through social networks? Will we friend our local patrol officer?"

But he also cautions against unintended consequences that may come with Web-based systems. He cites a report titled Beyond the Beat: Ethical Considerations for Community Policing in the Digital Age, which explores the delicate balance between public safety and privacy when it comes to high-tech policing.

"However, before we go full steam ahead, we should be sure to think through all safety and security concerns," he wrote. "For example, text messages if not erased could be used against a victim later, such as in the cases of domestic violence. If the 911 system is connected to the Internet we need to be assured that the networks are secure from outsiders who might want to mine the rich data about people and the community."


Russell Nichols Staff Writer