Text 911 for emergencies

Santa Rosa County has introduced Text-to-9-1-1 enabling county residents to text for assistance in an emergency.

The system allows residents to text directly back and forth with 911 dispatchers to share vital information in an emergency.

County Emergency Services Coordinator Brad Baker said the system will be useful in a variety of scenarios.

“The majority of the time what we have seen across the nation is for the hard of hearing or the deaf, but it can be useful in other situations,” he said. “For instance, if somebody is breaking into your house and you are hiding in a closet, you might not want to talk because you don’t want them to find you.”

Other scenarios it might come in handy include domestic violence situations where a phone call might further put a victim in danger or in situations of kidnapping.

During a mass shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse earlier this year, several victims texted relatives to call 911 while they hid from the shooter. A phone call might have made them immediate targets, but Orlando lacked a direct Text-to-9-1-1 system.

Baker said the system has been extensively tested in all parts of the county and with all emergency agencies, so there is no need for residents to make “test texts” to see if it works. He cautioned that fake messages carry consequences.

“There were some prank texts reported in counties we reached out to. We can research who it is if a number becomes a problem, and we can actually block that number from the system if necessary,” he said. “We can get information from your carrier as well to give to the police. Florida does have statutes prohibiting abuse of the 911 system.”

Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Rich Aloy advised against testing the system.

“We would caution that false 911 calls and texts are illegal and a crime,” he said. “Also, as we all know, texting can lead to miscommunications. We prefer person to person contact where we can ask direct questions quickly so we can pass along information to responding deputies.”

Abusing the 911 system abuse in Florida is classified as a first degree misdemeanor and can result in up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in prison. More than four violations will result in a third degree felony charge with additional jail time and fines possible.

Messages should:

n Be concise and clear

n Contain the type of emergency

n Include address location details. Text messages do not give dispatchers location information like phone calls would.

n Not contain emoticons (emojis) or abbreviations

n Not be sent to more than one recipient or as part of group message. Group messaging will not work with the system.

n Not contain photos or videos. They will not go through to dispatchers.

An example message could be “Send police to 2000 Piney Wood Lane in Milton. Intruder in home.”

Once the message is received dispatchers will respond with questions such as what is the phone number and location of the emergency. They will then ask if the caller needs police, fire or ambulance then will connect them to the appropriate agency.

Aloy said the sheriff’s office will receive the entire conversation when they are brought into a situation meaning there will be no need to rehash the information.

“Response will be slightly delayed because you have to text it in. As long as we can get the location and what you need, we can go ahead and send help,” Baker said. “It may take us longer to garner all the information we will need, but we will have dispatched whatever they need whether that is fire or EMS or police. Help will be on the way, and we will send the details out as we get them.”

Baker said the process can take even longer if dispatchers have to sort through text speak and abbreviations.

“We have to have a clear understanding of what is going on. Acronyms can mean different things to different people, so we would have to do follow up questions,” he said. “The training we did addressed some of the texting speak in training. We tell people to leave out the text speak, but it is probably going to happen, so we tell dispatchers they need to go back to verify that.  Fortunately, most of our dispatchers text anyway.”

If for any reason the text system is unavailable or the caller is out of area, they will receive a reply message from their carrier asking them to contact 911 through other means such as a phone call.

While the new system does open up a variety of possibilities Baker cautions that it is still better to call in an emergency if at all possible.

“When you call in we do get other avenues that we can’t if you text. If you can’t communicate your location in a text then we don’t know where you are,” he said.

He said the system is also limited to the county lines and texts can only be transferred internally. For example, if someone has crossed over the Okaloosa County line, but their text is received by a cellular tower in Santa Rosa County, Santa Rosa’s system will receive it. They dispatcher will be unable to directly transfer the person in distress to the Okaloosa officials. The person will either have to call 911 instead, or dispatchers will have to gather the information and call Okaloosa for them.
In short, the motto for the new system is “Call if you can. Text if you can’t.”

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