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'Text to 911' Service Possible in Kentucky's Distant Future

Perry County, Ky., 911 Director Alvin Caudill said he's heard talk about the service expanding, though he isn’t convinced it’s the way local and state governments should be going for emergency service technology.

by Amelia Holliday, McClatchy News Service / July 2, 2014

In the last 10 years, the text abbreviations “lol,” “omg,” and “fyi” have been added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary due to the text messaging boom that has seemingly taken over as the country’s favorite way to communicate. As people across the globe increasingly continue to let their fingers do the talking, the question has been raised as to why many services that require the use of a phone call don’t also allow for a texting option—one of those services being an emergency 911 call.

Local governments in 16 states are currently using a “text to 911” service, which allows people to send text messages instead of making a call in the case of an emergency, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Vermont opened up the service statewide at the end of May this year. Even though this technology seems to be part of a quickly growing trend, officials in Perry County do not expect to see it in the area for a very long time.

Perry County 911 Director Alvin Caudill said he has heard some of the talk about the “text to 911” service expanding, though he isn’t convinced it’s the way local and state governments should be going for emergency service technology.

“I don’t look forward to seeing that type of service,” Caudill said. “There’s a lot of questions that have not been answered … They’re wanting to be able to send pictures, they’re wanting to stream video. We don’t have time to watch everybody’s video … we have to be quick. If you’re going to load the 911 center down with voice, text, and streaming video, then you’re going to shut the 911 center down.”

Caudill explained that to implement the service in Perry County, new equipment would have to be purchased for the 911 center in order to receive and transmit text messages.

This would, of course, cost the county some major cash for a service that is already losing more money than a county with dwindling coal severance moneys can afford, according to Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble.

“We’re losing like $370,000 a year right now in 911,” Noble explained, adding that the county has been considering the possibility of letting the Kentucky State Police dispatch take over the duties of the 911 center, something that would allow most employees at the center to keep their jobs.

Noble, who lost his bid for re-election in May, said he would leave the decision as to whether or not to pursue the “text to 911” technology up to the new judge-executive taking his place after the general election in November. He added that, though he may not know much about the push for the technology at this time, he thought it would only be a matter of time before that technology was nationwide anyway.

“That’s something that we need to look at because that’s the future. Most people do texting now, and I think it’s something that needs to be looked at,” Noble said, explaining that there was likely some kind of grant funding available for the implementation of such new technology.

Becky Walls, who lives in Hazard and responded to the Herald’s Facebook question about the “text to 911” service, said she thinks the service would be well worth the cost, whatever it might be.

“There are situations where you can’t talk to a 911 operator, but could send a text. If there was an intruder in your house and you were hiding in a closet or under a bed, you couldn’t necessarily talk to a 911 operator,” Walls said.

Caudill said besides financial concerns, he has a number of other issues with the “text to 911” service.

“Texting, even to 911, could cause deaths; it could cause accidents because people, they will text and drive,” he said.

Another concern Caudill raised centered around the “texting vocabulary,” which often times only makes sense to the author of the text message.

“There’s so much stuff out there that these young kids is coming up with and I don’t think the 911 dispatchers are going to learn that because it’s not the English language,” Caudill said. “If we want to go to another language, we’d have to go back to school to learn it, and text messaging, it’s like shorthand.”

Caudill added that even with training on how to read text messages, a person using the service might still mistype or use a different abbreviation that they’re used to but was not part of the training.

Sandy Sexton, another Facebook responder, said she would not be using the service if it became available in the area.

“I want to hear a voice (not a text) when I have an emergency to reassure me that someone will help me as soon as possible,” Sexton said.

Yet another concern raised by Caudill was the inability of the service to track exactly where a sender was texting from in an emergency to ensure responders could find the person or persons. Caudill explained that cell phone companies are required to give the longitude and latitude coordinates, within 500 feet, of the caller.

“With a text message, you could be in Florida. So, they don’t have to provide that latitude and longitude coordinates, so, we would probably never know where someone was at,” he said.

Caudill said possibly the only plus to this service is the ability of text messages to be sent even with less cell phone signal than is needed to make a call. This could help in situations—especially in Perry County—where an emergency happens in a part of the county with little to no cell phone service and no land-line availability.

Caudill said though the dialogue has been going back and forth on the issue of whether or not the “text to 911” service would be the best option for emergency call centers, he does not see the service coming to this area for a number of years.

“The state government is usually six years behind,” he said. “I know Homeland Security is pushing it, but I don’t see it here for five or six years down the road.”

©2014 The Hazard Herald (Hazard, Ky.)

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