Text to 911 option coming to county

By Kitsey E. Burns kburns@civitasmedia.com

July 3, 2014

YADKINVILLE — In the coming months, Yadkin County residents in need of emergency assistance will be able to text 911, however, officials still say a voice call is the best and most efficient way to communicate with 911 operators.

“[Texting] is not in any way, shape or form a replacement for a voice call,” said Ellis Frazier, communications director for the county’s 911 center. “The public needs to understand there are limitations to this.”

Frazier said they were notified by the state 911 board that starting May 15 of this year there would be a statewide roll out through the four major cell phone carriers — Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T — to offer 911 texting capabilities.

“Right now in Yadkin County we do not have the ability to receive those text messages, but the good thing about that is that anytime you try to text to 911 and the text to 911 is not available in your area, you get a text message notification that advises you that it’s urgent that you make a voice call to 911.”

All counties in North Carolina have been asked to complete forms asking for contact information to send to the cell carriers so they can begin the process of getting each county set up to accept texts to 911, Frazier said. The process may take anywhere from four to six months to complete. The 911 system for the county already has the capability to accept texts so it is just a matter of the cell carriers completing the set up process on their end, he said.

“We’re fortunate in the county because they did an upgrade of the 911 phone system in 2011 and essentially the carriers in the county both have the capability and have the equipment that can be functionally used for [receiving texts to 911],” Frazier said.

The primary benefit of being able to text 911, Frazier said, is for people in situations where talking out loud might put them in more danger, such as situations of domestic abuse. Frazier said that county 911 operators already are trained in some non-traditional methods of collecting information in situations like domestic abuse where the operator may pretend to be a friend on the phone so as not to alert the abuser to what is going on.

“It’s going to be a great tool for those folks who cannot talk in the situation they are in to access 911 and to get help,” Frazier said.

Comments on The Yadkin Ripple’s recent Facebook post on this topic indicate that most people are in support of being able to text 911 for the exact reason that Frazier mentioned.

“Sometimes maybe you are in a situation you don’t want someone to know you are calling 911 so you text,” said Ashli Weaver Reavis.

Another poster worried, however, that it might be misused by some.

“I do think there may be times that people text when they really should have called, like when someone calls 911 because [McDonalds] won’t give them a refund,” said Scarlett Vestal Huffman.

For anyone in need of emergency services, Frazier said the most important piece of information a person can give is the exact address for where the emergency is happening, or at the very least the road name or nearest intersection. Frazier said it is also important for the public to understand that 911 operators have a protocol they must follow to take the information in a certain way and while the questions may seem confusing to a caller, it is important that they answer all the questions to the best of their knowledge.

“If the callers are able to cooperate with us and answer the questions even though they may not understand them, that will help them get a better quality of care and a better quality of service from the units that are responding to them,” Frazier said.

As soon as the text to 911 capabilities are available in Yadkin County, Frazier said they would notify the public. Frazier also stressed the importance of a standard voice call to 911 when in need of emergency assistance.

“I definitely want folks to understand that voice is the best opportunity to call us and that texting to 911 centers, no matter where they are, should only be used as a last ditch effort,” Frazier said. “And please, even though you may be curious about it, please don’t text to 911 to determine if it’s working because obviously that can tie up the system.”

Kitsey E. Burns may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.