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Allegheny County's first text message to 911 made while driving

| Thursday, May 15, 2014, 11:24 p.m.

Allegheny County's first text message to 911 is an example of what not to do.

Hours after county Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced Verizon Wireless customers could send text messages to emergency dispatchers, the 911 center received a text reporting a potential drunken driver in Pittsburgh, said county spokeswoman Amie Downs. The text indicated the sender was driving at the time, Downs said.

Texting while driving has been illegal in Pennsylvania since March 2012.

“This is one that probably should have been better served by a phone call,” Downs said.

Allegheny County on Wednesday became the fifth county statewide to offer the ability to text 911. The county started the service to help people who are hearing- or speech-impaired or who are experiencing an emergency when making a phone call could endanger them. Calling 911 is still the most effective way to reach a dispatcher, county officials said.

Expanding the service to other major carriers — Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile — should be easier now that the technology is in place to receive Verizon text messages, said Elliott Hamilton, a senior director of marketing for TeleCommunication Systems of Annapolis, Md.

TeleCommunication Systems installed software at Allegheny County's dispatch center, allowing it to receive text messages. It can handle all other carriers, and the county can tell wireless companies it is ready, Hamilton said.

Allegheny County in February requested wireless providers offer the service, Downs said. Verizon was the only one to respond.

Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T have 911 text messaging capability but did not provide details about when it would be available in Allegheny County. County officials have not heard from the companies.

Non-Verizon customers in Dauphin County, the first to offer texting to 911, are waiting, said Emergency Management Director Steve Libhart. In the seven months since rolling out the Verizon-only service, no other carriers have been included. The county has received one real emergency via text message, Libhart said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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