9-1-1 dispatchers can't open text messages

Friday, November 19, 2010
Lewisburg Police Communications Supervisor Alissa Kruger, above, is seated at one of the city's dispatch desks. They include: three computer screens and keyboards for 9-1-1, radio dispatching, and the National Crime Information Computer system; a telephone to and from the National Warning System for weather and amber alerts; and a telephone with several lines for 9-1-1, the fire department and the police business line.

Members of the Marshall County Emergency Communications Board want people in this area to know that emergency dispatchers cannot receive text messages sent to 9-1-1.

Their message is simple: In an emergency, call, don't text, 9-1-1 because phone calls to 9-1-1 are answered immediately. Texts are not received by the 9-1-1 system. It doesn't have the technical capability to do so.

Not here. Not yet. Call, don't text, 9-1-1.

Here's why.

Voice communication by telephone calls is possible because of a technology that's different from the system that transmits text messages, according to David L. Gleason, who's been the technology consultant for the county's Emergency Communications Board that met Wednesday morning at the Hardison Office Annex.

Some people think that because they're sending a text from one telephone to another that the message is received immediately after it's sent, Gleason said, reporting a conversation with his daughter. She thought he would know something, but he didn't, so she asked, "Didn't you get my text?" He didn't, but while they were talking, he did receive her text.

The Emergency Communications Board has asked local media to make public service announcements - "Call, don't text, 9-1-1," but that announcement raises a couple of simple questions.

Is it a problem here?

To the best of their knowledge, it is not, but they don't want it to become a problem.

But how do they know?

If the dispatchers can't receive text messages to 9-1-1, how would they know someone's tried to do that?

Nobody has come to the police station, limping with a crutch to help them deal with an injury and asking, "Didn't you get my text?"

Alissa Kruger, communications supervisor at the Lewisburg Police Department, has been to meetings of the Tennessee Emergency Number Association and the National Emergency Number Association where members have reported problems, and they've said there have been stories on TV saying so.

"We know from elsewhere there have been news stories," Kruger continued. "People have gotten the impression that they can text their problems, and we know that people have the technology that can receive texts at 9-1-1 stations."

And that's something the Marshall County Emergency Communications Board is working toward, but it's not available here yet, so Kruger says, "We're still in the developmental stages."

Meanwhile, "Teenagers would rather text" instead of making a phone call, she added.

Some crimes would seem to be perfect for a text, but it's not an advantage.

"Think about being kidnapped and being put in the trunk of a car," Kruger said. "You'd think you could text, but if you call 9-1-1, then any noise or sound heard by the phone will be heard at the 9-1-1 desk."

If the cell phone's call to 9-1-1 is continued, the location of the phone can be revealed.

"If it's somebody who's in trouble, we can call the cell phone company and get the location," Kruger said.

Another dispatcher, Christine Johnson, said the phone company "makes us fill out a form and prove it's a matter of life or death." Landline phones' locations are immediately known and displayed on the dispatcher's computer screen, but it takes only seconds to locate a cell phone.

Meanwhile, "Not every call is an emergency," Johnson said, explaining that sometimes the dispatchers receive calls three times a day from a deactivated cell phone when the call isn't an emergency.

"A mother has given her child the deactivated phone for he child to play with because the child likes to play with mother's phone," Johnson said. "Then, the child calls 9-1-1 and we hear them cooing."

There have been other misuses of phones.

"They'll call 9-1-1 and ask for the number to the post office," Kruger said. "You'd be surprised at the number of directory assistance calls we receive."

Other abuses have been addressed in court. It's illegal to call 9-1-1 when there's no real emergency.