Imagine someone breaking into your home in the middle of the night. Not knowing if they have a weapon you find the nearest place to hide and then quietly call 911 hoping the intruder cannot hear.
If you live in Dauphin County you now have the option to text to 911; something that could potentially save your life. “Whether it’s a physical limitation on speech or whether it’s a limitation where you don’t want to speak and perhaps reveal your location, it provides another means to contact 911,” said Steve Libhart, Director of Emergency Management for Dauphin County.
Dauphin is one of four counties in Pennsylvania to offer the emergency text service. “The most recent addition was Allegheny County, in the Pittsburgh area. Other than that it’s in Dauphin, Lancaster County, and Luzerne County. Four counties in total and growing,” said Libhart.
Libhart says the county dispatch center receives a couple of texts a month, but they are usually people just testing to see if the service works. “We have one text that has been documented as a legitimate 911 call, that required us to dispatch an emergency vehicle. I believe we were the first county in the state to process a 911 call through a text message,” said Libhart.
The service works the same as sending a regular text message. Where you would normally type someones phone number, you type in 911. Once the message is sent, a dispatcher will respond. “The text comes in through the interface that we use for the hard of hearing customers, the TTY/TTD interface, and it indicates that it’s a wireless or SMS text,” said Libhart. “So we know right away that it’s not a true TTY. The benefit of using that interface is all of our dispatchers are already familiar with that, and know how to use it. We can pre- script some questions, that are in a question and answer bank, and are already ready to go. This cuts down on the typing back and forth. So there is no additional cost to the county,” said Libhart.
While the new emergency text service offers an alternative for people who may not be able to call, emergency personnel still recommend that people who are able to, call 911 instead of texting. “If you’re not in a position where you’re personal safety is a concern for you, and you have the ability to call 911, you should not text, you should by all means call,” said Libhart. “It’s easier for us to get information in a shorter amount of time. We also get some cues from background noises and also just inflection in an individual’s voice.”
As of now, in Dauphin County, only Verizon Wireless offers the service, so only their customers can text 911. “We have formally requested text to 911 services from the other major carriers but they haven’t implemented a solution yet. It’s only Verizon Wireless customers who have the ability to text to 911,” said Libhart.
If you text 911 from a county that doesn’t have the service, or if your cell carrier doesn’t offer the service, you will get a message back letting you know that text 911 is not available.