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Texting Allegheny County's 911 center becoming easier

Michael DiVittorio
| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 1:01 a.m.

Allegheny County officials said they are making strides to enable customers of all four major wireless phone companies to text the 911 communications center.

The service became available to Verizon wireless customers two months ago. T-Mobile was the second provider to offer it, on June 23.

Gary Thomas, Allegheny County assistant chief and 911 coordinator for the county Department of Emergency Services, said Sprint and AT&T are in the implementation stages of developing the service.

He said the current text-to-911 solution is temporary.

“You're not going to be texting in real time. There's going to be a delay in conversation between the caller and 911 and vice versa. The average (delay) is about 20 seconds from the time we send (a response) and it's received. If you can make a call to 911, then make a call. If you can't make a call then text 911.”

Texting 911 rather than calling is to be used if placing a voice call potentially could put the caller in harm's way. Thomas said staffers already were trained on how to take those types of calls, so no additional training is needed for the texting program.

“We made a milestone,” Thomas said. “We're one of the first (centers) in the country to get this going.”

Thomas said the communications center had received 81 text calls as of Thursday, but could not delineate between carriers.

The text shows up on a call taker's screen as a TTY call. TTY, also known as teletypewriter, is a device used by people with hearing or speech disabilities to send and receive text messages over telephone networks.

Police will not receive text messages. Dispatchers send information to law enforcement through a computer-aided dispatch system, and officers receive it via a computer inside their vehicles.

The service is not available in cellular roaming areas. Those who try to make a text-to-911 call in an unavailable service area will receive a message indicating that's the case, and to contact 911 by other means.

Thomas said the 911 center does not have the technology to receive pictures or video, but is in the process of implementing new equipment to make those updates possible with the carriers.

Local police chiefs support the new feature, particularly for the reasons Thomas outlined.

“At first glance it's a great idea,” Homestead police Chief Jeff DeSimone said. “It's something that won't affect us (as officers), but it will give them an opportunity to know (call takers) are dealing with someone who has some imparity ... It sounds like it's a positive step for 911. If you're deaf and have a problem speaking, there's an alternative way to contact 911. I can see it being very positive.”

“I think it's an asset and I believe it's something that should have happened a long time ago,” McKeesport Assistant Chief Tom Greene said.

“It's not as fast as simply speaking, I don't care how fast you text,” Whitaker police Chief John Vargo said. “You can't type as fast as you can talk. If it becomes used for everything it's just going to slow the system down.”

Non-emergency issues still should be communicated to the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services by calling 412-473-3056.

More information about texting to the 911 center is available online at www.alleghenycounty.us/textto911.aspx.

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or mdivittorio@tribweb.com.

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