Butte county implements text-to-911


Text-to-911 test conversation. Photo credit: Lucas Moran

Every American knows who to call when an emergency strikes. Dispatchers are prepared to assist with every 911 crisis call. From a hit-and-runs to a mass shooting in progress.

Of the over 6,000 dispatch centers in the U.S. fewer than 15 percent are currently equipped to receive text messages as well as calls. This Monday, all dispatch centers in Butte County joined these ranks as the testing period for their text-to-911 service concluded. While this improvement will hopefully save lives, police departments want to stress the theme of “call if you can, text if you can’t.”

“It’s not text instead of call because it is much faster to process a phone call than it is to process a text,” Nancy Wilson, records and telecommunications manager for the Chico Police Department, said. “Texting is an option for those who are unable to call.”

Demographically, the text-to-911 program aims to accommodate individuals who are speaking or hearing impaired, however it also has applications in some of the most harrowing emergency situations.

According to Wilson, text-to-911 could be a vital tool to those “in a position where they could be endangering themselves if there was someone there that heard them calling 911.”

Domestic violence situations, kidnapping, stalking and home invasion are just a few emergency scenarios where this feature has the potential to aid victims.

Though the option to text may be necessary in these specific settings, it does come with drawbacks.

“Most cell phones have Phase 2 technology where it pinpoints your location between cell towers,” Wilson said. “With texting it’s not as accurate. It could be several blocks or even miles off.”

If texting is absolutely necessary, Wilson stresses including the ‘what’ and ‘where’ of your situation in the text so that dispatchers can best assist you.

In August of 2014, the FCC mandated that all cell carriers have text-to-911 capabilities. It is now a matter of adoption by dispatch offices.

Notably, victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida were unable to text 911 because their local dispatch center did not support the service.

San Bernardino county implemented text-to-911 in December of last year, mere weeks after the high profile shooting at a social service center Christmas party which left 14 dead.

As far as future improvements to the system, Wilson hopes for greater location accuracy. Dispatchers are not currently able to receive pictures or video, but that could change as well.

Since the testing period began, only a handful of text calls have come in to the Chico dispatcher. One was a suicidal subject and the other a child playing with a phone. Both situations were diffused successfully.

Lucas Moran can be reached at [email protected] or @lucasmoran141 on Twitter.