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Ability To Text Emergency To 9-1-1 Coming By Year's End

Carla Eckels

By the end of the year, cell phone users will have the ability to text their message to the Sedgwick County Emergency Communications 9-1-1 Call Center in Wichita--and operators will be able to text back. The Federal Communications Commission requires cell phone carriers to provide this capability for call centers nationwide by the end of the year. KMUW’s Carla Eckels has the story…

Operator: "Sedgwick County 911. What city is your emergency?"
"OK, how may I help you sir?"
"OK, what is the address where we need to come?"

The 9-1-1 center responded to 600,000 calls last year, 76 percent of callers were using cell phones. Sedgwick County Emergency Communications Deputy Director Elora Randleas says the new texting capability will help bring the emergency service up to date with the way people communicate.

Credit Carla Eckels
Sedgwick County Emergency Communications 9-1-1 Call Center

"As technology grows the job becomes less of--it’s no longer Mayberry where you’re calling in and Aunt Bea is answering the phone and she’ll say 'Yea, we’ll get them right out there.' There’s a lot of technology that goes into making sure that we are using our resources effectively throughout the county," she says. "There’s just a lot of factors that go into managing the emergency response system for the county this size."

The texting option is not going to be promoted as a replacement for a voice call in case of an emergency but Randleas says that there are times when texting may be a better choice.

"You can text and you don't have to go through an operator or a system to communicate with 9-1-1," she says. "Also, if you are in a place where your not comfortable talking either because you're afraid that you are going to be noticed by an assailant or it's just not an appropriate time for you to be talking on the phone, then you can text to 9-1-1."

Angela Lampe, Executive Director for the YWCA Wichita Women's Crisis Center, agrees.

"I think there is great potential for this to be a benefit to victims of domestic violence," says Lampe. "If there is that immediate danger, a voice call is probably still going to be your safest, promptest, best option but to have the other opportunity to text to 911 can be a much more discreet, safe manner for someone to contact law enforcement and seek help that they may need in that situation."

9-1-1 Deputy Director Elora Randleas points out, the message is 'CALL when you can, TEXT when you can’t.'

"And that is nationally the feeling from every public safety answering point is voice call always preferred," says Randleas. "It will be faster always but text if you can’t call."

Credit Carla Eckels
Vanessa Downing has been a call-taker at Sedgwick County Emergency Communication 9-1-1 Call Center for 25 years.

On August 8th, the FCC voted on rules requiring text message providers to enable Americans to text to 9-1-1 in an emergency. The commission says it's a necessary first step in the development of next generation 9-1-1 capabilities. Randleas says the call center is laying the foundation in preparation for the new texting option.

"We are moving forward with this but we are not ready to roll it out to the public so we are planning our resources and deciding how we want to handle this text to 9-1-1," says Randleas.

Administrators are looking for the most affordable and reliable way to implement the new service. One option, she says, is through a 9-1-1 line processed through a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf or TDD device. Using the device, a text would come in through the 9-1-1 line, show up on a screen and a dispatcher can text back though a keyboard.

Credit Carla Eckels
A dispatcher monitors computer screens at the Sedgwick County Emergency Communications 9-1-1 Call Center.

"The other option is to set it up through a web portal which would be monitored on a separate PC from the computer that the dispatchers are monitoring now and so we are leaning towards the TDD option that way," she says. "We don't have to create any more staffing positions for it and it integrates more into our system as it is without having to spend a whole lot of money to do anything different."

Randelas says there's no cost associated with the implementation. In the short term. A long-term plan would be funded by 9-1-1 surcharges. Unlike a voice call, a text message using the TDD device will not automatically display the location of the phone where the trouble is.

"If you were to call from your cell phone I get a general area of what vicinity you’re in. That's part of the foundation we're laying now is to get that location off of your text message so that that's not a problem down the line," Randelas says.

Even with new technology in place, Deputy Director Randleas says decoding text messages will likely be a challenge for operators.

"People use different abbreviation and acronyms and dialect from different regions, different text lingo," she says, "so that will be a learning curve, especially for those of us that are not young kids that maybe don't know all the lingo and so that's one thing that we're going to have to combat."

The public safety industry will invest in training personnel to identify some of the varied text terms and phrasing that will come into the 911-call center.

"We have a whole generation of people that can text very quickly and are more comfortable doing so than talking and so for them, it’s something they are more familiar with," she says. "We don't want barriers in communication. We want to be able to communicate quickly and get help out there as fast as possible so that's just something we will train for and work towards and always be learning."

Randleas says communications centers across Kansas are working together to move forward on the next generation technology, and they’ll be ready by 2015--at least for phase one. Sending pictures and video may be next.

"It's ever growing, ever changing and we're just trying to keep changing and evolving with it," says Randelas.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.