Text-to-911 Service Getting a Review 2 Years into Deployment

The system lets people under duress communicate with dispatchers via text rather than through a normal phone call. While not the optimal form of communication, it's been a lifeline when other options were unavailable.

by Jordan Shearer, The Bemidji Pioneer, Minn. / November 20, 2019

(TNS) — With two years under their belts, dispatchers from Beltrami County have seen both the success stories and drawbacks from the Text-to-911 system.

Christopher Muller, emergency management director for Beltrami County, recently gave a presentation on the program to county commissioners. The system essentially allows people under duress to communicate with dispatchers through text message rather than through a normal phone call. While not the optimal form of communication, it's proven to be a lifeline when other options were unavailable.

“The deaf, hard of hearing and mute community has welcomed the service,” Muller said, adding that there have also been numerous other circumstances in which someone had to use the Text-to-911 service. “We’ve actually had domestic violence situations where it was not safe for someone to place a voice call.”

Beltrami County is a “regional text center.” That means in addition to its own needs, it processes the text messages sent to 911 for 13 counties in northwest Minnesota. The county paid $40,000 to become compatible with text messages. The other counties in the northwest region pay a fee to Beltrami County for the service.

Although it can be very useful, it also can be cumbersome to use. It takes longer to process a text message than it does to help someone over the phone. For example, dispatchers have to ask one question at a time so the answers to multiple questions don't get confused.

There’s also the fact that dispatchers aren’t able to hear other indicators that would be in the background of a phone call, such as gun shots, people screaming or others.

“That’s why we use the phrase, ‘call when you can, text when you can’t,” Muller said. “We would much rather process a voice call than we would a text.”

Although it can be a good option for people in certain circumstances, there aren’t a lot of situations where the dispatch center actually receives text messages. Muller said that for all the counties in the region, there are less than 10 situations a month where someone will text to 911 instead of call.

That’s very few compared to the number of emergency calls the dispatch center handles. Muller told the commissioners the dispatch center processed nearly 90 emergency calls a day in August.

Nonetheless, the Text-to-911 system has played an integral part in a number of scenarios where a call wasn't an option.

In one scenario, Muller said a kidnapping victim texted the authorities while she was in a semi-trailer. The authorities were able to relay the information to Otter Tail County, and they stopped the semi based on its description and found the victim.

In another situation, a lost hunter was unable to make a call because his cell signal was not strong enough. However, it was strong enough to send a text message.

“We found him within an hour,” Muller said. “That is so much better than having to do a full-blown search at night.”

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