by Vicki Ikeogu
It’s been nearly two months since the Minnesota Department of Public Safety launched the text-to-911 service statewide. But since the service has been active, law enforcement throughout Stearns County have seen limited use of the technology.
“As far as I know, we haven’t had any 911 calls through texting,” said St. Joseph Police Chief Joel Klein.
And the same is true in Sartell.
“We had handled one domestic situation where the caller was unable to talk but was able to communicate to us through texting,” said Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes.
While the number of text-to-911 calls is not as high as Stearns County Public Safety Services Supervisor Mary Lieser and Stearns County Dispatch Supervisor Michele Burke had originally anticipated when the service went public on Dec. 5, the two believe use of the service will increase as time goes on.
“Other states have implemented it before us,” Burke said. “But it’s just coming here now.”
The text-to-911 system, according to Burke, works similarly to a traditional voice call. People text their emergency situation to 911 where a dispatcher answers the call for service.
“It rings (the dispatch center) like a phone line does,” Burke said. “And when dispatch opens up that message on their screen it will appear almost like a TTY similar to the deaf and hard of hearing. They have machines they can use to make their phone calls where they type back and forth to whoever they are talking to. And (text-to-911) sort of acts like that.”
Burke said because of a lack of appropriate infrastructure in place at Stearns County, all of the text-to-911 calls are being handled through the Mille Lacs County Dispatch Center.
“The state is broken up into regions and we are part of the Central Region,” Burke said. “So what happened was they wanted the whole state to go live all at the same time. But not all of (county dispatch centers) were able to do that because either they needed upgrades or equipment. So they have one agency per region right now at least who is taking the text-to-911 calls for the rest of the region. And right now, we are not live. Mille Lacs County is the one who is taking the text-to-911s in our region.”
Burke said she estimates nearly a dozen of the state’s 87 counties have the necessary infrastructure to support text-to-911 calls. Most of the systems are concentrated down in the Twin Cities metro area. But Burke said each multi-county region has at least one text-to-911 equipped facility.
Lieser anticipates Stearns County to receive the necessary technology during the first half of 2018.
However, while each region is able to handle texting, Hughes said text-to-911 should be a last resort for many.
“If you can make the call, make the call,” he said. “Don’t text.”
Hughes said, one of the major disadvantages to texting an emergency to 911 instead of making a voice call is texting does not provide an accurate location for the emergency.
“When you call, we can often pinpoint your location much faster,” he said. “And often times the dispatchers are able to pick up on cues from background noises or the inflection in your voice as to what is going on in that situation.”
DPS says text-to-911 has the same 160-character limit as typical texts and could potentially bounce back if the texter is roaming. In addition, there is currently no language translation service for 911 texts.
Text-to-911 calls have often taken longer than traditional voice calls, Burke said.
“You are going to get a better response (with a voice call),” she said. “And especially now, you won’t have to deal with a relay from county to county. But if you have a hearing-impaired person or someone who cannot speak, it’s obviously going to be better for them to text, but we would always prefer a voice call if (you are) able.”
Lieser said examples of appropriate uses for the text-to-911 call would be in situations where a person could jeopardize their safety by calling.
“(One) actual call has been a domestic,” she said. “And those are the times you want to use it. When you don’t want someone else to know you are making that phone call.”
Another example, Burke said, was if the caller was inside a vehicle being driven by someone under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
“If you feel like your safety might be jeopardized because you are making that call, then that would be a good reason (to text),” she said.
Burke said in states where text-to-911 has been active, voice calling is still the preferred method of communication with law enforcement.
“Studies about this have shown when people are encountering an emergency they would rather make a voice call than stop and text,” she said. “Because you feel like you are getting more of an immediate response.”
For those situations where texting is the best option, DPS recommends texting the exact address and type of emergency into the message field using simple wording and avoiding abbreviations, emojis and pictures. Questions from the dispatcher should be answered promptly.
“The physical act of texting 911 is not that difficult, but it’s important people follow these steps and provide us with the most accurate information,” said Darlene Pankonie, chair of the Next Generation 911 Committee. “If there’s a delay in answering a dispatcher’s questions, or if you don’t tell us where you are, we can’t help you. This will lead to valuable time lost in an emergency and take dispatchers away from other calls.”
Text-to-911 provides the public with another option when it comes to reporting emergency situations to law enforcement. And for Lieser, that is a good thing.
“It just gives the public another tool,” she said. “And if we can help somebody by that text, then texting is worth it.”
Vicki Ikeogu is a local freelance reporter from St. Cloud. Ikeogu is a 2015 mass communications graduate from St. Cloud State University. Ikeogu was previously the business reporter at the St. Cloud Times. She currently works as a transportation planner for the Saint Cloud Area Planning Organization.