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May 13, 2014

9-1-1 by text

Phone providers to offer urgent service beginning Thursday

TERRE HAUTE — By Thursday, text messages can be sent to 911 in any county in Indiana.

Today, texts to 911 can be sent on at least one major cellular phone provider — Verizon Wireless, said Vigo County 911 Director Rob McMullen.

It’s part of a coordinated statewide approach to public safety, McMullen said Tuesday.

Vigo County was among five counties in the state that participated in a pilot program to test text-to-911 last year through Verizon Wireless and its technology partner, TeleCommunications Systems.

McMullen said AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have also committed to providing the text-to-911 service by Thursday, a deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC wants all other wireless carriers to provide text-to-911 service by the end of this year, he said.

“This will allow citizens of Vigo County and citizens throughout the state to text messages to 911. Instead of calling, you can send a text,” McMullen said. “It is through the Indiana Statewide 911 Board. Indiana is among the first 10 states” to provide texting to 911. “It allows in-bound and out-bound texts,” he said.

Voice is still the preferred and most effective method to communicate with 911 dispatchers, McMullen said. Still, texting can benefit the hearing- or speech-impaired or if a caller is deaf, he said.

Texting can also be done if a person is unable to speak, as in a medical condition such as a stroke. In addition, texting can be done if speaking is unsafe, such as in a home invasion.

“It kinda started, not specifically, when students at Virginia Tech (in 2007) had an active shooter on campus and many, many people tried to text 911 and those calls just went nowhere to report the active shooter. The FCC is now mandating all public safety access points accept texts into their dispatch” centers, McMullen said.

Vigo County gets about 77,000 calls to 911 annually, or about  200 to 250 calls daily, McMullen said.

“It could increase a few 911 calls, but we are not sure,” McMullen said.

For example, McMullen said a 14-county region that serves Dallas, Texas, received just three texts to 911 in a year’s period. “Cincinnati, Ohio, has [its] system up and running for six months and also only about three texts,” he said.

However, Vigo County during its pilot testing, received hundreds of texts, McMullen said. “We may be different and get much more than other areas,” he said of texts to 911.

To send a text, cellular telephone customers must be in range of cell towers in the area, and texts are limited to 160 characters.

Verizon states customers must have mobile phones that are capable of sending text messages and is available to customers who use Short Message Service (SMS) provided by the company. It is not available for third-party text messaging applications than can be downloaded to a phone or for applications that do not use SMS technology.

“If someone can make a voice call, please do so,” McMullen said. “Also, if you use text, please don’t use texting lingo, but type out the full word, as it makes it easier for the dispatchers” to understand, he said.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

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