911 texting service launches in York County

The first system in the country to allow people to send text messages to 911 launched Monday in York County.

Right now the system only works with Verizon Wireless customers; however, other carriers are expected to join the program by 2014.

Folks in York County, Poquoson and Williamsburg that have Verizon service can send a text message to 911 when they need help.

“It can be invaluable for those with speech and hearing disabilities and when a voice call could put someone in greater danger,” explained David Turetsky with the FCC. “During disasters when there may be network capacity constraints text messages often the only way to get through.”

York-Poquson Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs says the possibilities for the new technology are endless.

“A situation where they were held hostage. Maybe they were put in the trunk of a car or anything like that,” Diggs said. “As we get video and photographs in – pictures of cars, license plates, someone who had committed a crime, an assault or a robbery.”

Terry Hall, Chief of Emergency Communications at the Regional Emergency Communications Center, says they’ve been working on the new system for about a year, running about 300 test scenarios a day in preparation for the launch.

However, Hall stresses that the Text to 911 system is meant to be a complimentary system.

“Our preference is still voice communications. This is not meant to replace voice communications,” Hall said.

York County provided the following information about the system that launched Monday:

Verizon Wireless customers in York County, Poquoson and Williamsburg should keep the following in mind if they send a text to 911:

  • Customers should use the texting option only when calling 911 is not an option.
  • Using a phone to call 911 is still the most efficient way to reach emergency help.  Texting is not always instantaneous, which is critical during a life-threatening emergency.  It may take slightly longer to dispatch emergency services in a text to 911 situation because of the time involved:  someone must enter the text, the message must go over the network and the 911 telecommunicator must read the text and then text back.
  • Providing location information and nature of the emergency in the first text message is imperative, since the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Emergency Communications Center will receive only an approximate location of the cell phone, and will not be able to speak with the person sending the text. Text abbreviations or slang should never be used so that the intent of the dialogue can be as clear as possible.
  • Customers must be in range of cell towers in the York County, Poquoson and Williamsburg area. If customers are outside or near the edge of the county, the message may not reach the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Emergency Communications Center.
  • Texts sent to 911 have the same 160-character limit as other text messages.
  • Verizon Wireless customers who use Usage Controls should remove the Usage Controls feature to ensure full text to 911 capability.
  • Verizon Wireless customers must have mobile phones that are capable of sending text messages. Any text message to 911 will count either against their messaging bundle or be charged at 20 cents each. Customers on ShareEverything plans have unlimited texts as part of their plans, including text to 911.
  • The solution is available for customers who use the SMS provided by Verizon Wireless.  It is not available for third-party text messaging applications that can be downloaded to the phone or for applications that do not use SMS technology.
  • The texting function should only be used for emergency situations that require an immediate response from police, fire or emergency medical services. Non-emergency issues should still be communicated to the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Emergency Communication Center through its non-emergency line at (757) 890-3621.
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