Jefferson County launches 911 texting service

STEUBENVILLE — Jefferson County residents can now communicate with the county 911 center via text message.

The county is the 14th in Ohio to have the capability.

Robert Herrington, 911 director, said the center has been working for the past nine months to add the capability for residents using a cell phone to send text messages to the 911 center.

“Call if you can, text if you must,” Herrington said of the philosophy behind 911 texting.

He said residents can use the 911 texting in certain situations, such as being deaf, not being able to speak due to a medical condition or injury, if they are in a threatening situation and a voice mail can increase the threat or if they can’t make a call because of poor reception.

“We don’t want to replace 911 calls with texts,” he said.

Herrington said there are certain situations that warrant sending a text to 911, such as domestic violence or a situation where person is in a bank and sees something about to happen and wants to alert the authorities.

The four cell service carriers in the county, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, have tested the service to make sure it works.

About two-thirds of the calls received by the county’s 911 center are from mobile phones, Herrington said.

There are some limitations to using 911 texting, Herrington said.

The location information accompanying a text to 911 is not equal to wireless voice call location, he said. A text to 911 can take longer to receive or might not be received at all. Herrington said 911 texting doesn’t work if the phone says “roaming.” Voice calls can be made to 911 without a service plan. Texting 911 requires a service plan, he said. Photos and videos cannot be sent to 911 at this time. You can’t copy anyone with the 911 text. Herrington said to wait until you are safe to notify others of your situation.

Herrington stressed to only text 911 in a fire, medical or police emergency.

“People who send a text can be identified and prosecuted according to local laws and regulations,” he said.

To send a 911 text message, pull up a new text message and type in 911 as the phone number receiving the text message. Type in the message and send. The 911 center will receive the message. The call will come into the center with a different ring tone, alerting the dispatcher it is a text message.

The 911 system will notify the person sending the text the message has been received and the sender and dispatcher can communicate by text messages. After the needed information is received, the dispatcher will send a message notifying the sender the text messaging has ended.

The center has a master street address used for landlines. Herrington said the master list includes which responders should be notified for that home in the event of an emergency. He said the 911 center has switched to map-based dispatching, which allows an operator to pinpoint the location of the cell call and provide a list of responding agencies.

“That is a huge transition for us, and will be more efficient. We can pinpoint the location of a call, but we didn’t have the exact list of agencies to respond. With map-based dispatching, it is more exact,” he said.

The map-based dispatching also will let a dispatcher know if a road nearby is closed for work. The dispatcher will be able to inform the first responders which route to take to the emergency call, Herrington said.

The 911 center has a goal of installing computer tablets in all ambulances and fire trucks in the county in the next year, which will show the best route to take to an emergency, he said. The first responders will be able to type in when they arrive on scene and leave, thereby eliminating the need to talk on a radio to a 911 dispatcher.

Jefferson County routinely receives calls intended for Brooke and Hancock counties because of where cell phone towers are located, Herrington said.

If a person in West Virginia sends a text message that is received by Jefferson County 911, the dispatcher will have to stay on the line as an intermediary with the intended 911 center, Herrington said. That might result in a delay in getting help immediately dispatched, he said. As a result, Herrington said West Virginia residents should make a voice call, which will be switched to the appropriate West Virginia 911 dispatcher.

Another tool being used is RapidSOS, a communication service developed to assist 911 centers, Herrington said. It uses metadata stored by Google and Apple when a person goes onto the Internet or uses a router to access the Internet, he said. Such data helps Google and Apple use location identity to push advertising.

Herrington said Apple and Google have allowed RapidSOS to access its stored metadata.

Herrington said RapidSOS helps 911 centers more accurately pinpoint a cell phone call. He said there is a 97 percent accuracy to within 2 meters when using the service.

The service only works with a call in progress, he said.

RapidSOS is being used by more than 3,000 911 centers across the country, he added.