Technology

Dallas latest North Texas city with text-to-911 service

In this May 3, 2019, photo Verlene Beheler, a 911 call taker, works in the Dallas Police 911 call center at Dallas City Hall in Dallas. The Dallas Morning News reports Dallas recently became the latest in North Texas to offer the text-to-911 service after years of discussion and technological constraints.
In this May 3, 2019, photo Verlene Beheler, a 911 call taker, works in the Dallas Police 911 call center at Dallas City Hall in Dallas. The Dallas Morning News reports Dallas recently became the latest in North Texas to offer the text-to-911 service after years of discussion and technological constraints. Rose Baca

R u in danger? In Dallas, u can now txt 911.

The Dallas Morning News reports Dallas recently became the latest in North Texas to offer the text-to-911 service after years of discussion and technological constraints. While phone calls are preferred, city officials say the option for emergency texting will help those who are deaf, hearing-impaired or in a situation where talking will put them at risk.

Dallas police Maj. Israel Herrera, who oversees emergency communication, said the system used in 2017 was unable to process texts. After the city upgraded its communication service, the department had the ability to use text-to-911.

Herrera said the city is "giving them the best we can" with the new system.

In the first two weeks of April, Dallas police said, they received 176 emergency texts.

The way it works is simple: A user can type 911 in the phone number field with a description of the emergency situation. A 911 call taker would respond via text with questions. If the communication is dropped, officers are dispatched immediately to the location by pinging the location of the cellphone.

But despite several years of planning, the system has limitations.

The city hasn't fully developed a protocol to take texts in Spanish, and the system cannot take photos or video. City officials also say emojis don't work with text-to-911.

Alejandra Zendejas, a local League of United Latin American Citizens director, said she's pleased the city now has the technology but is concerned about potential language barriers.

"While we know it is not available in Spanish, we hope that it is in the city's plans to make it accessible to all Dallas residents of all languages," Zendejas said.

She said LULAC will hold the City Council "accountable for providing safety to everyone and expanding the 911 text program without language barriers."

Herrera said that the Spanish 911 text feature is in the works, and that Chief U. Renee Hall and the command staff is "very supportive." But he said he doesn't have an official timeline on when that option might be available.

Calling 911 is still the best way to get help, Herrera said. The city has bilingual 911 call takers and a language line available for translations if no bilingual call takers are available.

The Federal Communications Commission started to require wireless carriers to enable text-to-911 in 2014. But not all 911 call centers have the capability to handle those texts yet.

Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, said that it is "extremely important for cities to offer text-to-911," but that "this implementation is proceeding too slowly."

Several North Texas cities, including Richardson, Seagoville, Balch Springs and Cockrell Hill, have had text-to-911 capabilities for years, but they're not often used.

After two years with the program, Richardson Sgt. Kevin Perlich said, most people don't use text-to-911. Perlich said that in the past year, the department has responded to about a dozen such emergencies.

"It's not something that is utilized very often," Perlich said. "It's a backup in an emergency situation. ... It's like your spare tire. It's there if you need."

The Plano Police Department also is waiting to offer text-to-911. The city also was slowed by outdated 911 communication technology and a budget approval to upgrade the system.

Susan Rodriguez, public information specialist over Plano's emergency communications, said the city is working on a timeline to introduce the feature.

"We are in the process of trying," Rodriguez said. "A lot of us are taking our time to get the best solutions that fit our community."

In Dallas, police tested the system last year and again months before the rollout. Herrera said the city needed time to train call takers, create policies and implement a workflow system.

Members of the Dallas City Council's Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee praised the introduction of text-to-911 service.

Mayor Pro Tem Casey Thomas said in a March 25 meeting that text-to-911 could save the life of someone who has been kidnapped or in a situation where calling 911 may put them in more danger.

"This is so important and we've got to give it as much attention as we possibly can," Thomas said.

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

This is an AP Weekend Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News

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