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Text-to-911 Capabilities Launch in 16 Nebraska Counties

The technology has been used successfully in situations where people couldn't talk for fear of harm, but police also hope it will be able to facilitate the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing.

by Riley Johnson, Lincoln Journal Star / January 25, 2019

(TNS) — Lincoln, Neb.'s 911 center received its first real emergency text Tuesday, the day it announced the new capability developed as a safe alternative for people in emergencies.

A woman who needed to report domestic abuse texted Lincoln's 911 center for help, said Lincoln Police Capt. Mayde McGuire, who oversees the center.

In addition to Lancaster County, the text-to-911 capabilities were launched Tuesday in Cass, Clay, Fillmore, Gage, Jefferson, Johnson, Nemaha, Nuckolls, Otoe, Pawnee, Richardson, Saline, Seward, Thayer and York counties.

Emergency officials stress texts should be a last resort for cases where it's unsafe for someone reporting an emergency to talk on the phone.

Public safety officials have adopted the National Emergency Number Association's slogan: "Call if you can. Text if you can't."

Texts are slower exchanges than the immediate back-and-forth of a phone call, but they'll be important options for those in hiding and those with hearing or speech difficulties.

"I think that we are a little behind in how fast technology is moving," McGuire said. "But the ability that this technology gives us is in the right direction.”

Cell phone providers Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular can support text-to-911 in the region, McGuire said.

Virgin Mobile customers aren't able to report emergencies via text in the area, so they should call in emergencies, she said.

After typing 911 as the recipient number while composing, someone texting 911 should first include in their message field where they are and what the emergency is, McGuire said.

Guidelines recommend these first texts be brief and use simple words, not abbreviations.

An automated acknowledgement will be sent once a text to 911 has been received, so if someone doesn't receive that confirmation reply they should call in their emergency.

"They cannot think they have reached our agency just because they have sent a text," McGuire said.

The person texting should be prepared to answer questions from the 911 center and should not turn their phone off until told that it is OK.

If a text is received and then communication from the person reporting the emergency stops, dispatchers will treat it like an abandoned 911 and send an officer to investigate, she said.

Several weeks ago during the soft launch of the technology, someone in hiding texted the 911 center in Nemaha County, Sheriff Brent Lottman said.

They believed someone had broken into their house and were afraid to make noise, so dispatchers sent deputies there.

"It turned out to be nothing," Lottman said.

Even though it was a false alarm, the system worked as designed, he said.

Previously, McGuire said, callers and dispatchers needed to speak and think creatively to communicate emergencies in dangerous circumstances.

Dispatchers often are trained on how to discern unspoken emergencies, for example a call where someone dials 911 and tactically tries to order a pizza, she said.

Texting will provide another safe option, but it also will make reporting emergencies easier for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, McGuire said.

For several years, text telephone systems designed to accommodate people who are deaf facilitated these 911 calls.

But texting 911 may replace that in coming years, McGuire said.

This method may also help callers who are experiencing phone reception problems or when cellphone towers are inundated by phone calls and can only receive incoming texts.

©2019 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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