Upgrade Sets Stage For Texting to 911 in 2015

The York County Department of Emergency Services on Wednesday successfully transitioned to a new central telephone system that eventually will allow members of the community to text emergency information to the county’s 911 dispatchers.

The project completed Tuesday included the replacement of nearly all technology used to process incoming 911 calls within the center.

“This project keeps our 911 Center on the leading edge of today’s rapidly evolving communications landscape,” said York County Commissioner Doug Hoke. “It’s part of our commitment to providing the best possible public safety communications network to our community and first responders.”

Six areas in Pennsylvania currently accept texts from at least one wireless provider, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Individuals should not text York County 911 until further notified. The Center is not currently able to accept texts. The goal is to introduce texting to 911 in the spring or summer of 2015.

Any individual who attempts to text the York County 911 Center should receive a bounce-back error message advising them to place a voice call.

With the technology to accept texts in place, the 911 Center now can request that the four major nationwide wireless carriers provide the capability to the County. Each of the carriers has voluntarily committed to providing the service to text-capable centers that request it.

In the meantime, the 911 Center will develop internal policies, train staff and comprehensively test the feature.

The new technology offers both benefits and challenges, said Eric Bistline, executive director of Emergency Services. For example, a text might be able to get through in areas where spotty cell service would prevent an effective phone call. Plus, texting provides residents a way to quietly communicate with 911 in the event of a home invasion or other violent situation. It’s also beneficial for those with hearing or speech impairments.

But texting is inherently slower than voice communication, Bistline said, and can create confusion between the caller and dispatcher due to the use of text abbreviations and loss of ability to hear someone’s voice inflection (tone) when communicating.

Even when texting becomes available, voice calls will still be the most effective way to communicate with 911, he said.

The project cost was $1,082,621, with $618,698 coming from fees charged by the state to wireless subscribers. The remainder came from the County’s general fund.

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