By Tristan Hallman
The Dallas Morning News
RICHARDSON, Texas — Many North Texas public safety agencies can now receive emergency text messages — that is if people don't mistake police for fast-food delivery.
"We had somebody try to order pizza, so obviously an error," said Allen communications manager Shellie Taylor.
"But we've had no actual text-to-911 calls."
But officials from many of the agencies believe that texting to 911 is the next step forward for emergency response and policing. The latest North Texas city to take the leap is Richardson, which began training call takers on its new system last week.
Richardson communications manager Liz Cole said bringing 911 into the future is "a journey, not a destination."
And texting will support a demand once the message about its availability gets out, she said.
"We've got to be able to support the public's expectation, and our focus from a national and a local perspective is 911 from any device at any time," she said.
And while officials say they always prefer a call, they do want people to have the ability to text.
"It's set up for people in situations that talking on the phone would be dangerous to their being," said Waxahachie dispatch supervisor Marie Stevens. "It's set up to where they can text us now on 911 ... if they're hiding or something like that with somebody in the house."
Such a system is also a huge boost to deaf and hearing-impaired people. They previously had to connect to 911 through relay services, which can take precious time away in emergencies.
"We have heard some bad stories of deaf and hard of hearing people struggling to connect to 911 through relay services in times of emergency, especially via mobile devices," said Andrew Phillips, an attorney for the National Association of the Deaf. "We believe that being able to text 911 will make 911 easier to reach and more accessible."
Plus, Cole said, the system will cater to younger generations who have a text-first instinct.
"I have a 20-year-old son. I can call him, and he will not answer," she said. "And he will respond back in text, 'What do you want, Mom?'"
By this summer, Richardson's system will be fully operational. The call-takers will be able to receive 911 texts and respond to them on their computers. They'll run through the same questions they would on a call.
Eventually, they hope to be able to receive data, such as photos and videos of crimes or people. The data messages could be a game-changer for police, Richardson Chief Jim Spivey said.
"If our officers can get to a scene with a picture of what's going on there that's sent to them while they're en route, can you imagine how important that is going to be?" he said.
Not all public safety agencies have the technology for the texting system yet. The North Central Texas Council of Governments set up the system for several Collin County cities and towns and for smaller agencies in outlying areas, such as the Hood County sheriff's office.
But the Dallas Police Department is awaiting City Council approval to upgrade its system to handle texts, which couldn't happen at least until the next budget cycle starts in October.
For now, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are the only carriers that have upgraded their systems to send and receive text messages to 911. AT&T is working on its system too.
The companies have all agreed to help set up systems nationwide. Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Deborah Lewis said the company started helping set up the systems in recent years because "law enforcement told us there was a need and an interest."
But Lewis said texting in an emergency should only be used as a last resort.
"We just want people to remember it's really good technology, but calling is oftentimes really good technology as well," she said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 The Dallas Morning News