Text-to-911 Available This Summer in Iowa

Not all cell phone carriers will provide the capability to its customers, but AT&T, iWireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon have committed.

by Winona Whitaker, Ottumwa Courier, Iowa / April 13, 2017

(TNS) - The standard number for emergencies, 911, has evolved since a universal emergency number was first conceived in 1957. Texting 911 in an emergency could be available by summer according to Iowa’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department.

Governor Terry Branstad has designated April 911 Education Month in Iowa, and HSEMD is nearing completion of an upgrade to Iowa’s 911 network to an Internet Protocol (IP)-based system which will allow people to message 911 instead of calling the number.

HSEMD said not all cell phone carriers will provide the capability to its customers, but AT&T, iWireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon have committed to making Text-to-911 available. HSEMD expects the additional method to be in service by summer.

Text-to-911 was developed primarily for people who are hearing or speech impaired, but texting can also be used in situations when a speaking would endanger the caller as in the case of a home invasion or domestic abuse. It can also be useful when medical conditions make speaking impossible, says HSEMD.

Wapello County Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Richmond said he’s planned no special events for 911 Education Month but is sharing the designation on social media. “It’s just general education because there are so many modes of communication,” said Richmond.

“Cell phones are so common place now,” said Richmond. Emergency services can track people using their phones’ GPS, so even when callers don’t know where they are, dispatchers do.

“It’s gotten a lot better than when it first came out,” Richmond said. The ability to pinpoint a cell phone can help emergency services find a car accident victim. “We might use that same thing for someone who’s on the trail system,” Richmond said, or for boating accidents.

Everyone’s definition of an emergency is different, Richmond said. “They take every call seriously.” Generally, however, 911 should be reserved for health emergencies or people are in jeopardy.

Richmond said, “911 is the safety net for everyone. We’re going to respond. We’re going to provide service. That person thinks it’s an emergency. We’ll help them take care of it. That’s what public servant means.”

Brenda Bennett, data communications supervisor for the Ottumwa police department said 911 should be used when property or life is in danger. “It is not made for people who can’t find the regular police number.”

Bennett said it’s important to know your location when you call 911. “It’s amazing the number of people that don’t know where they’re at when they call 911.”

Bennett said when a person calls 911 the dispatcher will ask the caller a series of questions, but at the same time, the dispatcher is sending help to the caller’s location. The questions help responders reach the caller quickly and safely.

“We have an enormous problem with pocket dials on 911,” Bennett said. She advises people to put password locks on their phones to avoid accidentally calling the emergency number. Emergency services will check out the situation anyway, Bennett said. “We try to call first. It kind of depends on the situation. We’ll check the address and see if we’ve had a problem there before.

“When someone calls 911, their phone will actually plot [their location] on a map in our communications center,” Bennett said. A land line will give an exact location, she said. A cell phone can be off depending on how close the caller is to a tower. If the closest tower is busy, the call might be routed through another, Bennett said.

“Most of our calls, probably 75 to 80 percent are wireless. You cannot assume that we know exactly where you’re at.” GPS features have helped, Bennett said, allowing emergency workers to reboot every couple of minutes to see if the signal is moving.

Another cell phone feature available on some phones will allow the caller to reach the emergency number without pressing the numbers 911. Pressing and holding a single digit will call 911 on some mobile phones, Bennett said. The feature is for emergencies in which the caller can’t physically call the correct number.

©2017 the Ottumwa Courier (Ottumwa, Iowa)

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