Washington Counties Move Toward Text-to-911 Capabilities

The push for emergency texts dates back to 2010. Then-Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski called for 911 centers to start accepting texts after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

by Cameron Probert, Tri-City Herald / November 19, 2018
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(TNS) Texting 911 in Washington's Benton and Franklin counties will be a reality. When that will happen, however, remains to be seen.

Southeast Communications Center leaders are talking about what they’ll need to do before putting the service in place, said Richland police Capt. Mike Cobb, who heads up the regional dispatch center.

The center handles all of the emergency calls — and many of the non-emergency — for fire and police agencies in Benton and Franklin counties. On average, 1,000 calls a day come through the center.

Few details of 911 service have been ironed out. Major questions like how it would work, how much would it cost, when would it be installed and who would provide the service are still to be answered.

“If we can take advantage of that technology and have it be operationally effective, then we want to do that,” Cobb said.

The push for emergency texts dates back to 2010. Then-Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski called for 911 centers to start accepting texts. He pointed to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, when text messages went unanswered as students hid, according to reports on CNN and Governing Magazine.

“Students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 911 that dispatchers never received,” the FCC said at the time.

The FCC called for text service to be in place by 2014. Counties across Washington have been slow to find ways to make it work. There are 11 counties that have the service in place, including Clark, Thurston, Clallam, Jefferson, Wahkiakum, Pacific, Snohomish, Kitsap, Grand and Spokane.

Walla Walla’s dispatch center is one of the latest to announce a concerted push to get the system in place. Public Safety Communications Director Steve Ruley promised to have it up by the middle of next year if not sooner.

While texting technology is more than 25 years old, it’s not a simple change, Cobb said.

“There are a lot of different aspects to this rather than just making the service available,” he said. “There is an operational side and a legal side.

“We need to make sure this is going to meet the need and serve the public.”

Right now dispatch leaders are looking at various vendors to find software that works well with their computer systems.

The average shift at the center divides workers into two groups: up to three people answering phones, and four people working on the radio with police and fire agencies, who also sometimes answer the phones.

Whoever receives the text would need to stop receiving phone calls. Then the person getting the call needs to be able to transfer that information into the system police and fire use on the computers in their vehicles.

Then leaders need to determine how to store those text messages in case someone makes a public records request for them.

©2018 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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