Officials announced the new dispatch capability saying it would greatly improve access to individuals with hearing and language impairments.
(TNS) — WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County residents in need of emergency assistance now have have a new way to seek help: through text messages.
The county announced the launch of its text-to-911 program this week, giving residents the opportunity to communicate with dispatchers via text messages in addition to telephone calls.
The text communications are intended to help in situations where speaking by phone would either be too dangerous or too difficult, officials said.
“This is a great day for the enhancement of emergency services for our residents, for our hearing- and language-impaired, but also for those emergencies that happen in the home where you can’t speak,” Palm Beach County Commissioner Paulette Burdick said during a news conference at the Emergency Operations Center.
The county joins 26 other Florida counties that offer text-to-911. Broward and Martin counties are scheduled to install similar programs this year.
The county spent about $270,000 to install the system, with an anticipated annual cost of $97,000 to maintain it.
The text system was activated five weeks ago, but that was not disclosed to the public before Monday so that officials could have time to test it and address any problems, Palm Beach County 911 director Chuck Spalding said.
The system has already been used to help residents in dangerous domestic situations, he said.
“People who assumed it was there were texting in,” Spalding said. “We had a number of domestic situations where people didn’t feel safe (calling). I’ve seen texts where a child’s texting asking for help because something has happened to their mother.”
Beth Wagmeister, director of Deaf Services of Gulfstream Goodwill Industries, said the ability to communicate with dispatchers through text messages will be particularly beneficial to residents who either are deaf or hard of hearing.
“It’s just another way for them to feel safe and included and (know) that their lives matter as well,” Wagmeister said. “It’s been years and years in the making and it’s just a real win for the deaf community.
But officials caution that the text system will have limitations. Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay stressed during the news conference that phone calls are still preferred when possible.
“We’re very excited that we have the text option. The preferred option will always be the phone call,” McKinlay said.
Dispatchers also cannot determine a precise location from a text, officials said. All those who text 911 are urged to give dispatchers the address in question.
The system is only set up to accommodate English speakers. It won’t accept photos or videos, and using emojis in a message will disconnect communication with a dispatcher.
Users also should not send group messages while communicating with dispatchers, and are asked to avoid using slang or abbreviations as those could cause confusion.
“We’re really trying to stress to people, just type it out,” Spalding said.
©2018 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.