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Emergency Texts Aid First Responders in New Mexico

Text messaging 911 situation info to cellphones is increasing the efficiency of firefighters and rescue personnel.

At least two people in Farmington, N.M., are glad that checking text messages has become standard operating procedure for many emergency workers in the area.

In October 2011, a car rolled over into a ditch, trapping two people inside the vehicle. 911 was called, but the operator read the wrong address over the two-way radios that firefighters use to respond to calls. But since the incident details also were typed and sent simultaneously as text messages to first responders, one rescuer noted the error and re-routed units to the correct location — saving the trapped motorists from further harm.

For years the Farmington Fire Department has been using the software that converts emergency calls to texts. The software, called Remote Print Manager (RPM), was developed by Brooks Internet Software. While the call-to-text technology sounds rudimentary, having the system in place allows paramedics and emergency personnel to rely less on the radio and serves as a backup alerting method.

Mark Mordecki, a firefighter with the Farmington Fire Department, explained that the department was having communications problems because the radio frequency bands they were using began filling up with chatter from other agencies. Although some trucks also have mobile data terminals (MDTs) that give incident details to users in electronic form, the units go down at times.

So the department looked into technology that would push 911 call data to responders’ cellphones. The technology initially was seen as a backup system. But the idea quickly found favor among paid and volunteer fire crews because they no longer would have to carry pagers or radios and instead could respond via text that they are responding to a call.

“It’s a godsend for them, because they didn’t have this capability before,” Mordecki said. “They didn’t give radios to everybody, they just gave pagers. And at night, alarms don’t go off. They just get a text message.”

How it Works Now

The call-to-text system essentially is automated. A 911 call goes into a countywide 911 center, and as the operator is finished typing the call into the record, the information is sent as a text file into a server that every few seconds gets pinged by the fire department’s network, looking for new data.

That data is run through RPM, which filters out extra spaces and information that the responders don’t need. Once complete, the information is condensed into a text file that is then emailed to responders as a text message.

Previously data transmitted from the 911 operator would go to a fire department printer, which would generate a “rip-and-run” sheet that responders could tear off before going out to a call.

The change to text-based messaging has made operations more efficient, particularly since the texts can be sent out to different departments, depending on the district the emergency is in.

“That made it really convenient because we have 12 districts around here,” Mordecki said. “Only that district gets the text messages that pertain to them, so they’re not bothered by something that doesn’t matter to them.”

The Farmington Fire Department is also seeing some financial gains. According to Mordecki, RPM was a one-time $500 investment. Although an email distribution program is needed to use the software, he called spending the $500 “nothing” compared to the expense of purchasing radios.

“We don’t have to go out there and give everyone pagers or take-home radios that cost $1,000 apiece,” Mordecki explained. “We can send out text messages to everyone in the department at no to little cost and save thousands of dollars.”

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.