Public Safety & Homeland Security

Text-to-911 Program Showing Early Benefits, Palm Beach County Says

‘We consider the program to be a success so far,’ Dan Koenig, the county's 911 planning coordinator, said last week as the program approached its two-month mark.

by Julius Whigham II, The Palm Beach Post, Fla. / August 27, 2018
Shutterstock/Joerg Huettenhoelscher

(TNS) — In a Wellington, Fla., home in early August, a woman in her 20s locked herself in a bathroom with her cellphone.

She began sending text messages to a 911 dispatcher, saying her ex-boyfriend had threatened her and her family. Moments later, when her ex left the home, she ran to safety at a nearby store, where she called police.

It was the kind of scenario that public-safety officials envisioned when Palm Beach County launched its text-to-911 system in June.

"We consider the program to be a success so far," Dan Koenig, the county's 911 planning coordinator, said last week as the program approached its two-month mark.

Since the program's launch on June 25, 299 text messages had been sent to dispatchers across the county as of Aug. 21, although Koenig noted that figure includes test messages that were used in training.

The sheriff's office said that as of Aug. 21, it had received 23 emergency calls that originated as texts since the program's launch.

According to court documents, it was a text that led deputies to respond to the Wellington domestic call Aug. 3

Deputies arrested 37-year-old Juan Bixby on charges that include simple domestic battery, domestic battery by strangulation and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Bixby remained in custody at the Palm Beach County Jail as of Monday morning.

Koenig said there have been situations where those sending texts should have either called law enforcement or contacted authorities by other means. Some of the texts were messages from people wanting to send tips to police agencies, he said.

As with phone calls, the text message system should be used only for emergencies, Koenig said, and he recommended that those with tips use either smartphone apps such as the sheriff's "See Something" program or the Crime Stoppers of Palm Beach County website.

"It is still 911, so it should only be used in emergency cases," he said of the text-to-911 system. "[It] is still for when you need an immediate response."

Koenig said phone calls to 911 are still the preferred means of communication, but the text messages allow dispatchers another way to communicate with those who either are deaf or have trouble hearing, who are unable to speak or who find themselves in situations where speaking could put them in danger.

Officials have cautioned the texting system has limitations. It can only accommodate English speakers and does not accept photos, videos or emojis. In fact, an emoji will discontinue a texting session, officials say.

The same rules that apply for phone calls apply to text messages. Someone found to be abusing the text-to-911 system could face a criminal charge, authorities have said.

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