DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – It’s 20 year old technology that is also the newest innovation in emergency response.
Texting to 911.
“We average 1,000 911 calls a day,” said James Soukup, Emergency Communications director for the Durham 911 Center.
It’s a job where every second counts and the more ways you can communicate with 911 the better.
“It’s here now, and it’s up to the 911 centers to get the technology to be able to use it,” Soukup said. “They are some rare circumstances that 911 texting is appropriate but if you need it it’s there.”
All four major cell phone carriers, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Moblie, have now made text to 911 available nationwide.
Durham was the first city to test it out so got they got their equipment for free, and it’s worked.
“We had a situation recently where someone witnessed drug activity and didn’t want people to know that they were reporting that to us and they did text us back and forth and we were able to send a law enforcement officer on it,” Soukup said.
But other 911 centers in our area haven’t quite jumped on board and they’re not alone.
Only a handful of counties have the capability at all. In fact, Durham is the only county in the country that offers the service for Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T users, with T-Mobile on the way.
When you text to 911, your message is instantly sent to the 911 center, with about a 30-second delay. There, an operator is able to carry on a conversation through text message. They type out a message that gets sent back to your phone.
Soukup says texting 911 can be used anytime talking would put you in danger. He says it’s also great for the deaf or hearing impaired or if a storm or major event blocks out cell service.
“if you try to dial 911 or anyone you get a busy signal but a text will go through,” he said.
So why aren’t other counties using it?
Barry Furey, director of the Wake County Emergency Communications Center says they get more than a million calls each year.
But along with every other county in the state, they just haven’t installed the technology.
“It’s something we’re working diligently to get installed”, he said. “We’ve had a lot of technical decisions to be made, there’s just not a single solution to do it so from our stand point we want to make sure when we do it the first time we do it right because it’s such a critical part of public safety.”
Soukup says they’ve only received about a dozen texts total.
There are still some kinks to work out.
With a call 911 operators can pin point exactly where you are, but so far with text they can only get which cell tower the message came from.
And both 911 directors agree a real conversation is still your best option during an emergency.
“Calling is immediate we can talk back and forth where texting you have to type it somebody has to read it and type back,” said Soukup.
“There’s always something comforting about having a voice of a person on the other end, “ Furey added.
The thing to remember: call if you can – text if you can’t.
So what’s next after texting?
Some of the things developing along with that text, is being able to send picture or a video and that could be very valuable,” said Soukup.
For now, it’s up to the 911 centers to decide if your emergency text will connect you to help or leave you in the dark.