Sunnyvale Working to Make 911 Texting Service Available

The slogan for the nascent service will be 'Call when you can, text when you can’t.'

by Victoria Kezra, The Cupertino Courier, Calif. / February 24, 2017

(TNS) - Sunnyvale’s Public Safety Communications Unit is leading a regional effort to provide a service that would allow people to send text messages to 911 in the event of an emergency rather than making a call.

The slogan for the nascent service will be “Call when you can, text when you can’t,” and once it is operational, the Department of Public Safety will be able to respond to texts for help by way of a computer interface.

A resident texting the service may receive several quick response text answers such as “Where are you?” and “What are you reporting?” that can be selected and then sent by a dispatcher.

The service is being rolled out as an extra tool for residents who may have difficulty calling 911 or be in a situation where they can not speak during a call.

“The immediate situations that come to mind are people who are hard of hearing, can’t speak, or if they have a disability we can’t get around,” said Michael Spath, DPS communication manager. “It may also be good if someone has broken into your house and you don’t want to reveal where you are. It’s an extreme situation, but it’s foreseeable.”

If someone were to accidentally text the number or text an incomplete message, officers will respond via text. DPS has the tools to approximate the text sender’s location using the mobile phone’s location relative to cellular towers.

Text message sent to DPS will appear very basic when received by the dispatch computer. Residents should not send emojis as videos, pictures and nonstandard keyboard symbols will not be received by emergency services.

According to the city, Sunnyvale DPS is on track to be the first public safety department in Santa Clara County that can and will accept emergency text messages.

According to Spath, the city hopes to get the service operational by the end of June, and there is hope that other surrounding cities will get on board. He said Santa Clara, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Los Altos are also working on a 911 emergency text service, as is the California Highway Patrol.

The technology is fairly new. In 2014 the four largest wireless service providers, in conjunction with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association, agreed to give 911 call centers the ability to receive texts, according to the website 911.gov.

Call centers like Sunnyvale’s can have technology upgraded to receive the 911 texts, a move that is already underway. Spath said only about 20 percent of dispatch centers across the country are currently capable of receiving texts.

Sunnyvale wants to work with other cities to ensure a more reliable service. For example, Spath said texters in Sunnyvale could send a message that could hit a tower in a nearby city that does not have the 911 text service. That message may not get delivered, and the sender would instead receive a text a message asking the sender to call instead.

Sunnyvale would also like the 911 campaign to become part of a larger campaign in the region. There are plans to roll out a thorough public education campaign once the service is operational.

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©2017 The Cupertino Courier (San Jose, Calif.)

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