By Erich Wagner (File photo)
Alexandria officials announced last month the expansion of 9-1-1 service to allow residents to send a text message to the number in case of an emergency.
The move, announced March 30 although the system was implemented on February 16, is part of a region-wide effort to upgrade 9-1-1 service to better accommodate the increase in cell phone use and decrease in prevalence of landline phones.
Renee Gordon, director of the city department of emergency communication, said the measure will help encourage more swift calls to first responders, although the voice call remains the ideal way to reach a dispatcher.
“Our slogan is, ‘Call if you can, text if you can’t,’” Gordon said. “It can be used in active shooters and in situations where we ask people to shelter in place, so those are the kinds of things people will text for.”
And Robert Bloom, public safety systems administrator in the department, said text services will make it easier for more people to call 9-1-1.
“I think one of the first groups that will benefit from this are the speech and hearing impaired,” Bloom said. “The system they use now — each state has their own relay for people to send messages to make a voice call — but this change opens it up directly to be used by them.
“Plus, if someone is the victim in a domestic violence situation or there’s a break-in and they’re hiding in a closet, you don’t want your phone conversation to be heard, you can send out a text message instead.”
Under the system, residents can text the nature of their emergency and location to 9-1-1, and a dispatcher will begin a dialogue with the caller and send first responders.
Bloom said the initiative began with the Federal Communications Commission requesting that cell phone carriers provide improved 9-1-1 services to residents and local governments. Putting the onus on the three major cell phone carriers — Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile —means the upgrade came at no cost to the city.
“The cell carriers had to come up with a way to take the 9-1-1 message when someone texts it and route it to the right center and to be able to handle the call when it came in that way,” Bloom said. “Usually, you just use somebody else’s cell number to send a text, but with 9-1-1 that could go to any 9-1-1 center across the country. So there was a lot of testing that was done, similar to wireless calls, where you’d go to various places and dial 9-1-1 to make sure you’re going to the right place.”
Bloom noted that the addition of text message services is just an early step in a long process of upgrading 9-1-1 dispatching to better accommodate modern communications. Experts hope that emergency call infrastructure improves in the coming years to allow for the transmission of photos and videos, and that the industry can more quickly identify via GPS where a caller is.
“At this point, everyone’s using a stand-alone module to take the text calls, but as the systems get upgraded — and they’re very costly and large upgrades — it’ll be an integrated module,” he said. “You know how they said [on WAMU’s The Diane Riehm Show last November] how when they first ran electricity to houses, it was just to run the lights, and then they started adding all the different things like appliances and phones, they had to upgrade the power sources?
“It’s just like that for 9-1-1. The original 9-1-1 service was designed for wire-line calls, and now we’re just getting into the process of adding pictures and text and video, and in that process we need to do some upgrades.”
Gordon said that so far, the new text messaging service has worked well, although a large number of messages received were either accidental or test calls.
“That’s been the trend around the region,” she said. “Fairfax County was the first to go live, and they went live back in September. We called them during our testing phase to see what kind of calls they were getting, and most were accidental as well. Arlington got a lot [of accidental calls] too. But we still prefer that you call, anyway.”
“There’s nothing like someone on the other end of the phone telling you that there’s somebody coming, instead of a text,” Bloom said. “On the phone, you can really tell them where you are and what’s the situation, and there’s a calming voice on the other end of the phone.”