REENFIELD — Local emergency response providers want Hancock County residents to know they have options in getting help to their front doors: When a call to 911 is not possible, a text might come in handy.
In keeping up with technological advances, emergency operations centers across the nation have started to adopt text-to-911 programs, which allow residents to send dispatchers a text message about their emergency rather than making a phone call.
The text-to-911 program has been in place for just more than a year in Indiana, said John Jokantas, Hancock County emergency operations director. Since the beginning of the year, Hancock County 911 has received 27 text messages from residents seeking help.
These messages are handled with the same priority and security as any 911 call, said Jokantas, whose staff has been promoting the text-to-911 program on social media. Although phone calls are always preferred, the new text message platform offers an extra level of safety for callers who fear being overheard making a call.
Story continues below gallery
“Any way people can get us information, we’ll take it,” Jokantas said.
Text-to-911 programs began within the nation’s deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. As technology developed and text communications became more popular, it seemed fitting that 911 communications develop as well.
The Federal Communications Commission now requires all wireless carriers to allow emergency texts to be sent and received in the United States. Still, 911 call centers can elect not to accept emergency texts, and most states still do not support the technology, the FCC website states.
Indiana is one of the only three states that has adopted text-to-911 nearly statewide: only 11 of 92 Indiana counties do not yet accept 911 texts, and many of those areas are working to put the program in place.
Sending a text-to-911 is a simple process, dispatcher Craig Lindsay said.
Cellphone users looking to send an emergency text message should treat 911 just like any other phone number, he explained. Within the first message, users are asked to include their name, location, the nature of their emergency, and any other information first-responders might need to know. The message is forwarded to a dispatcher’s computer, and the dispatcher is able to bring the caller help through the exchange.
When used properly, text messages allow callers to communicate with authorities inconspicuously, Lindsay said.
“If someone has broken into your house, and you’re hiding in a closet, you’re obviously not going to want to make a phone call,” he said. “It’s a way for us to get information out without the suspect knowing that (emergency crews) are en route.”
So far, the emergency texts Hancock County 911 has received have been for fairly minor situations, Lindsay said. Far more often — 672 times since the start of this year — dispatchers have used the text-to-911 technology to text cellphone users who called 911 but then hung up. These outbound messages allow the dispatcher to discretely ask if the call was accidental or in reference to an actual emergency, Lindsay said.
There are certain emergency scenarios that lend themselves well to texts rather than calls, Jokantas said. Phone lines are often clogged with people reporting downed power lines or fallen tree limbs during times of heavy rain or thunderstorms, he cited as an example. Texts in these situations free up phone lines for more pressing emergencies.
In most situations, phone calls are preferred for several reasons — the ability to transmit information from caller to dispatcher more quickly and to pinpoint an address to send help, for example — but dispatchers know a call isn’t always an option.
The threat of fake 911 texts carry the same fears as fake 911 calls, Hancock County Sheriff Mike Shepherd said, “but the benefits outweigh those concerns.”
As word of text-to-911 spreads, dispatchers say they expect the program to become more popular, and many are eager to see how it will grow.
“Once it is utilized and utilized properly, I think it will be a good tool,” Lindsay said.