Alachua County is the second county in Florida to provide a text-to-911 service.
Alachua County E911 Coordinator and Communications Section Chief Keith Godwin said the first official text was received Monday from someone threatening to harm himself or herself. Emergency services were able to quickly locate and assist the individual.
Text-to-911 is a short, text-only messaging service. When a text is sent to 911, Godwin said it goes to a cell tower and then to a control center that reroutes the emergency text to the appropriate 911 center.
Any texts received in Alachua County go to the city’s 911 center and are displayed on a program called Gem911. According to Godwin, all 28 seats in the 911 center receive the text message.
“We get a visual that comes on your screen just like the little balloon you see on your phone,” Godwin said. “We also get an audible indication that there’s a text message.”
Godwin said Alachua County didn’t spend any money to launch the text-to-911 service. Instead, mobile carriers AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile paid the control centers to provide the service and 911 centers used existing computers to access the program.
Prior to the official launch of the text-to-911 service on Nov. 3, Godwin said the 911 center staff went through training in order for everyone to gain exposure to the new program. The staff wanted to test it for about a month to see what the potential problems were.
“In an emergency situation, you don’t want [the staff] to stumble and think about something,” he said. “You want them to know how to do it second nature.”
A woman in Columbia County sent a text during the center’s training period. She was reporting an argument between a man and woman – the woman was holding a knife.
Emergency officials were able to determine the location after communicating with the texter. Godwin said they called the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and personnel were able to respond to the scene.
When texting 911, Godwin said there are two important pieces of information the center needs to know: the location and type of emergency. He warned that although response times can fall within 10 seconds, the initial text is not guaranteed to go through.
If the text doesn’t go through, the sender will receive a bounce-back message.
“So if you were to send a text right now in a county that does not have 911 service, you’ll get a message back to your phone that says ‘texting to 911 service is not available at this time – please make a call to 911,’” Godwin said.
Collier County Sheriff’s Office Technical Supervisor Justin Koval said Collier County was the first county to launch the service in the beginning of May. Only three received texts qualified as emergencies.
“A lot of people thought that when we would go text-to-911 that we would get so many,” Koval said. “But we really haven’t seen a huge amount of texts.”
So far, Koval said he isn’t aware of any issues with the service. He suggested calling 911 whenever possible and resorting to texting if in a situation where calling would put the person in danger.
“Call if you can. Text if you can’t,” he said.
He said the text-to-911 service will be good for the younger generation. If there is violence occurring in schools, students have the opportunity to text it.
Godwin said the people who will truly benefit from the new service are those with speech or hearing impairment.
June McMahon, who was born deaf, was thrilled when she first learned about text-to-911 services.
Through the help of an interpreter, McMahon said text-to-911 is a great way for those who are deaf or hard of hearing to get in touch with 911 services through mobile phones.
McMahon, who is the vice president of Florida Association of the Deaf, said she has been telling as many people as she can about it.
A retired deaf education teacher now living in Palm Beach, McMahon said her parents, grandparents and cousins – as well as other members of her family – are all deaf. Her deafness is hereditary.
When she was growing up, McMahon’s family had to walk to the neighbor’s house to use the phone. Now, she can make a call directly from her home using a video phone.
However, if she’s not home, McMahon said she loses that luxury.
“Now [those in the deaf and hearing-impaired community] can really be independent – much more independent than we have been,” McMahon said “So, if something were to happen to me and I was out of the house, or if I was to see an emergency taking place, I could immediately text it.”
In a world where her biggest struggle is communication, McMahon said she’s excited to have access to the emergency service because it will improve her quality of life.
“If it helps one person,” Koval said, “it’s definitely worth it.”