Text-to-911 Rolls Out in Several Texas Counties

The adoption of new equipment is allowing most residents living in Grayson, Fannin and Cooke counties to communicate with dispatch centers via text message.

by Drew Smith, Herald Democrat / June 8, 2018

(TNS) — Most residents living in Texas' Grayson, Fannin and Cooke counties will now be able to reach 911 by text message thanks to the adoption of new dispatch communication technology.

Texoma Council of Governments Public Safety Program Manager CJ Durbin-Higgins said Thursday's announcement follows more than a year of implementation and testing work across the three counties. The service will be available to wireless subscribers of the four major U.S. networks, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

"Basically, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has dictated to the four major carriers that texts to 911 should be available, mostly in a push for the deaf and hard-of hearing communities and to make that an option for them. Now, it has kind of trickled down to all of the public safety answering points in the entire nation."

In an emailed news release distributed Thursday, TCOG said the text messages will be relayed to more than a half dozen dispatch centers operated by the Sherman, Denison, Bonham, Gainesville and Whitesboro police departments, as well as the Grayson, Fannin and Cooke county sheriff's offices. Durbin-Higgins said participating dispatchers will send messages in response and undergo monthly testing to remain familiar with the system and procedures.

"They have been trained to receive texts and it's integrated into our equipment, so they can respond with what they currently use," Durbin-Higgins said, adding that text messages would appear in writing on dispatchers' computer screens.

While Durbin-Higgins said the implementation of the text messaging technology was largely spurred by the public safety option it affords those with hearing impairments, it will also help those in settings where making a phone call actually poses an additional risk.

"This gives another option in the event that you're in a situation where you can't call, such as a domestic abuse event or perhaps an active-shooter-type situation, where you can't make any noise," Durbin-Higgins said.

Both Durbin-Higgins and TCOG Executive Director Susan Thomas said the texting program comes with certain limitations. Thomas said photos and video cannot be transmitted through the system and the program is currently capable of accepting only text messages written in English. The agency's director said senders must also have a data plan and messages sent from internet-based messaging platforms, such as Skype and WhatsApp, will not be received.

Durbin-Higgins said because texting provides less accurate location information to dispatchers, calling is still the preferred method of reaching emergency dispatchers. But if sending a text message is only safe option, Durbin-Higgins said senders should relay their exact location, avoid shortening words or phrases with acronyms or abbreviations and write simply. And like phone calls to 911, Durbin-Higgins said all text messages sent to dispatchers should be used for emergency situations only.

"Our main point is to make is call if you can, text if you can't," Durbin-Higgins said. "Calling is always better, and you're probably going to receive help faster that way, but this is another option."

©2018 the Herald Democrat (Sherman, Texas) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.