Citizens in the state of New Jersey have a new tool at their disposal should they need help in an emergency situation. On Sept. 7, officials unveiled a new text-to-911 capability that will allow residents living anywhere in the state to interact with emergency dispatchers via text message.
The tool has been a topic of much discussion following recent high-profile mass shootings, which occured in areas where the ability to text emergency responders was not an option.
The feature allows citizens to directly message dispatchers and is a critical part in getting better information to first responders during an emergency event, said Chris Rodriguez, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP), at an event at Rutgers University.
“The text-to-911 capability will allow, in the event that the unthinkable happens in our backyard, the public in a safe way to text 911 and be able to provide vital information to the first responders arriving on the scene,” he explained.
Relying solely on voice calls, as many 911 networks do, makes the information-gathering process slower and can put callers in high-risk situations.
During the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., victims reportedly reached out to family members through text messages asking them to call 911. Unfortunately, the network did not have the technical capability to receive text messages directly.
“FBI surveys of active shooter situations that have occurred across the country show that about 70 percent of active shooter situations end in less than five minutes," Rodriguez said. "And, in some cases, the speed at which those happen sometimes outpace the ability of first responders to arrive on scene.”
Attorney General Christopher Porrino said that while the technology represents a “quantum leap” in the natural evolution of 911 networks, the tools should only be used when a voice call is not possible or would put the caller in danger.
“As quickly as you may be able to text, your voice still works better to ensure the fastest and most appropriate and reliable response to your emergency,” he said. “But again, we fully recognize that there are going to be situations where voice-to-voice is just not an option. So, the thing to remember is call when you can, text when you can’t.”
Porrino said voice calls allow dispatchers to not only hear activity in the background, but also allow them to monitor other factors, such as caller stress level and condition. The attorney general also applauded the text feature for use within the deaf and hearing impaired communities.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also warns that voices calls should always be the first resort in an emergency. Despite the prevalence of the mobile communication medium, many emergency dispatch networks rely heavily on reports made through landline or mobile phone channels.
State Chief Technology Officer Dave Weinstein said the technology came online in late July and represents an alternate way to communicate with first responders.
“This is about access and choice and expanding the options for our citizens to leverage the services of emergency service personnel in this state, all across our 21 counties,” he said.
Though the 911 system will be able to receive mobile messages, it cannot receive picture or video messages. If a text message does not reach a dispatcher, a “bounce back” notification is provided to alert the sender.
The capability was made possible through a collaborative effort that included the likes of the New Jersey State Police, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, the Office of Information Technology, mobile service providers, and others.
This article was originally published in Government Technology.