Representatives with Sacramento-area law enforcement and emergency response agencies unveiled and demonstrated a new text-to-911 service Wednesday at the Sacramento Police Department Communications Center, and the communication center received its first 911 text about 10:30 a.m.
Authorities stressed that 911 users should still make a voice call whenever possible. However, as of Wednesday morning, people can reach emergency dispatch by sending a text to 911 when it’s unsafe or unfeasible to call.
From the dispatchers’ end, 911 texts are received from a computer interface. To expedite the conversation, the interface offers a drop-down list of frequent questions that dispatchers ask callers, such as “What’s your location?” or “Is anyone hurt?”
The new service is considered a landmark for the deaf, who previously had to rely on utilities like text telephones, better known as TTY.
“We’ve evolved, and technology has evolved,” said Sheri Farinha, CEO of NorCal Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “We have phones. We have video phones. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people utilize caption telephones as well as video relay services ... however, they were not direct. When we’re out and about, we still did not have direct access to 911.”
There are some basics for use:
* The text should explain the emergency the same way a phone call would.
* Users are urged to include their address in their first message to dispatch, as wireless location services on cellphones are not always reliable.
* Users must have a phone with a working data plan and cannot have their phone set to roaming.
* Photos or videos cannot be included in the message.
Texts not meeting the technical criteria will generate an immediate bounce-back error message, said Sacramento Police Department Communication Center Dispatch Supervisor Marla Swan.
“The other thing that’s important for you to know is that we don’t have translation available at this time,” Swan said. Foreign language translation services for text-to-911 are still in development with an exact timeline not yet established, according to Swan.
Text-to-911 can also be useful in dangerous situations or emergencies that make speech impossible or unsafe, such as for those who have suffered a stroke or a mouth injury, or those in the presence of violent criminals who need to remain silent.
Emojis and abbreviations are discouraged because they can make messages more difficult to decipher, Swan said.
Sacramento police and the FCC each advise texting 911 only in situations in which calling is unsafe or unfeasible — leading to the slogan “Call if you can; Text if you can’t.”
The system has been in a testing phase for Sacramento since 2017 until Wednesday’s announcement, and has been used by several California Highway Patrol officers since 2015, said CHP Valley Division Assistant Chief Ryan Stonebraker. Dispatchers have undergone simulated training, he said.
Texting is “the most prevalent form of communication for the state of California,” said Mitch Medigovich, deputy director of the Office of Emergency Services. “Because of that, having text-to-911 available in Sacramento County is a huge accomplishment for us. California has approximately 28 million 911 calls every year.”
Authorities also reminded potential 911 texters who are driving to pull over to the side of the road before sending their message.
Local emergency agencies coordinated in an effort to get text-to-911 rolled out simultaneously across Sacramento County, Swan said.
According to a list maintained by the Federal Communications Commission, areas offering text-to-911 have expanded gradually in the past year. Davis police, Davis fire and UC Davis added the service Aug. 6. Most of Los Angeles County was incorporated last October.