How Franklin County, Ohio's New 911 Texting Service Will Help the Deaf and Others

The “text-to-911” program has been planned for years but it’s taken time for governments and technology to make it a reality.

by Kimball Perry, The Columbus Dispatch / April 12, 2018
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(TNS) — By June 1, cell phone users in Franklin County, Ohio, can text 911 for help.

John L. Moore can't wait.

"There's not a response there when I call 911," Moore said.

It's not because dispatchers aren't answering. It's because Moore is deaf.

Now, the deaf community uses special services to contact emergency assistance.

"When you call 911 now, you have to use a regular phone. That means I have to use a video phone or a telephone operator or a video-relay service but a lot of homes in rural areas don't have that service," said Moore, chief executive officer and president of the Deaf Services Center in Worthington.

Once the service is available June 1, the hearing-impaired and those who might be in danger or who fear speaking to dispatchers will be able to send text messages to 911 from cell phones, tablets or other devices that have the capability to send texts.

"Two of the most vulnerable groups of our population are the deaf and those in domestic violence situations. Historically, they don't have the capability of reaching 911," said Kathy Crandall, Franklin County director of the Office of Homeland Security.

The "text-to-911" program has been planned for some time but it's taken time for governments and technology to make it reality.

Before this program, there were 15 public safety answering points, or PSAPs, in Franklin County, Crandall said. Those PSAPs are communications centers for local governments where calls for ambulances, police and fire assistance were answered.

Because the equipment needed to use "text-to-911" had to be upgraded at a cost of about $650,000 per PSAP, the 15 PSAPs in Franklin County combined to form three "master brain" PSAPs, she said. Those three will receive texts to 911 and almost instantly reroute them to their partner local jurisdictions to dispatch emergency workers.

The three PSAPs are:

  • Columbus, Franklin County Sheriff's Office and Grove City form one PSAP.
  • Dublin — which already dispatches first responders for Hilliard, Upper Arlington and Norwich and Washington townships fire departments — merges with Westerville and Delaware County.
  • Gahanna, Whitehall, Bexley and Pickerington are teaming up with other jurisdictions in eastern Franklin County.

Existing fees on cellphones help pay for the program, Crandall said, but because 911 calls can be made on tablets and others devices, officials might seek to expand the fee to them as well.

"Cellphone use is down," Crandall said. "We need legislation that puts that fee on all universal devices."

In addition to installing new equipment, local officials had to work with national cellular providers to make the switch seamless.

"We're kind of impressed with how the wireless companies were prepared for this," said Jay Somerville, director of the Dublin Police's Technical Services Bureau. He is in charge of the communications center that dispatches for Dublin and other governments.

Franklin County is one of 11 Ohio counties to adopt text-to-911 service, but others are expected to quickly follow.

The program's goal is to improve public safety.

"Franklin County has one of the largest deaf communities in the country," said William Griffith, the city of Columbus communications systems manager.

Nationally, it's estimated that 9 percent of Ohioans are considered severely hard of hearing or deaf, Moore said. His agency estimates Franklin County is home to 100,000 of them because it is home to the state government, the Ohio School for the Deaf and many agencies who hire them.

Text-to-911 also can be used, for example, for those hiding from shooters, being assaulted by a spouse or in other situations where speaking could be dangerous.

This, Crandall said, won't be the only change involving cellphones and Franklin County 911 service.

"Soon you'll be able to text videos to our 911 center just like you would with a text," she said.

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.