ROCKINGHAM — Dialing 911 in an emergency has been the standard procedure for decades, but that’s all about to change when Richmond County implements a modern system update that will allow people to text to 911.
Richmond County Emergency Management Services Director Donna Wright said the roll-out is slow going across the state.
“The only place it is in is Durham County right now, and it’s provided by Verizon,” Wright said. “As far as text-to-911, it’s not widespread. In most areas where it’s not yet available that’s because of limited available data connectivity through the carriers.”
Wright explained that text-to-911 is just now being pushed out nationally on Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
The service was made available here May 15.
“By May 20, I had all my requests in,” Wright said. “So we will have PSAPs (public safety answering points) ready when the carriers begin testing in July.”
There are pros and cons involved in texting to reach 911 dispatchers. While Wright is quick to insist that a call is always best whenever possible, she is aware of situations in which a more subtle solution is necessary.
“Yes, it’s always better to make the call using a phone because responders are able to get a lot of information from the tone of voice, background and other environmental noises,” Wright said. “But in a situation where it would be safer to remain as quiet as possible — Virginia Tech is a good example, as are kidnappings and some domestic situations — then text-to-911 can be a lifesaver.
“The text works just like a wireless call and will provide us with the latitude and longitude of the origin of the text. From there, we can use the device’s GPS to triangulate that location. Even if the person is moving or being moved, we can see it. And it works regardless of how a person has their device’s GPS settings configured. We can still see it.”
Wright said that in cases where people are kidnapped and held captive in car trunks, 911 dispatchers can plot their locations, rebid by sending that call back through the 911 trunks (or, incoming calls) and retrace them.
“And Richmond County is on the way to becoming one of the first groups in North Carolina to get this accomplished,” she said.
As to whether it will make the work of telecommunicators easier, Wright isn’t optimistic.
“I think it will make it more difficult,” she said. “Think about autocorrect and how quickly it can change the meaning of a sentence. We don’t want people to use it unless it’s absolutely needed. A phone call is always better, but again, there are some situations where a text is a much safer option.”
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-997-3111, ext. 15.