Two Southeast Alaska communities will now have text-to-911 capability in their emergency communications systems.
Wrangell and Petersburg will now have the ability to text emergency services in cases in which calling isn’t an option.
“So basically it’s been working out excellent,” said Petersburg Police Department Chief James Kerr in a phone interview. “It’s designed for the hearing impaired or domestic violence situations. If you can’t talk to the dispatch, but you need help, you can text.”
The police departments in those communities worked with Third Signal, a consulting company, to implement the technology, according to a news release from the company.
“One of the really big benefits I see with this is for search and rescue,” Kerr said. “It made a giant center section of Southeast have text coverage. It covers the water, it covers the land.”
The Juneau Police Department is looking at such a system, said Lt. Krag Campbell in an email, but hasn’t implemented such an upgrade yet.
“It is something we would like to add into our 9-1-1 system in the future as we work towards upgrading in the next few years,” Campbell said. “New technologies in law enforcement are always being presented as additional options, as well as managing current systems that require upgrades and maintenance. As with all of our technology projects, we need to have the staffing to manage the process and the funds to pay for them.”
The text-to-911 capability could be useful in active shooter situations, domestic violence incidents, and other scenarios where speaking would give away someone’s position. Petersburg’s dispatch center also covers Kake, which, combined with Wrangell, covers a large swathe of the region.
“I think one of the main reasons why we would be interested in the text to 9-1-1 function is the added functionality that allows people to notify emergency services of a need, when traditional voice calls are not an option,” Campbell said.
The text-to-911 capability is currently only available to AT&T or GCI customers at this time, as those are the only towers in the region, Kerr said. Users with other carriers may get a message that the text-to-911 service is not available if they try to use it. Petersburg and Wrangell began seriously looking into it within the last year, giving the go-ahead last December, Kerr said.
“It’s web-based, we don’t have recurring maintenance fees like a lot of 911 stuff.” Kerr said. “I paid for it out of E911 money, so it didn’t cost the taxpayers. It didn’t take very long. I just see it as a benefit.”
Kerr said they haven’t had anyone use it yet, besides some kids attempting a prank. The dispatchers were able to send a patrol car to their driveway to caution the kids not to misuse it, using the text’s location-fixing.
“In many remote parts of Alaska,” said Third Signal CEO Ryan Olson in the news release. “When people call 911 from a cellphone, the typical 911 location information is not delivered with the 911 call. For these remote 911 centers, Text-to-911 might be an important option, because a map, displaying the location of the texting party, comes with the text.”
Text messaging should only be used when calling isn’t practical, the news release said. Abbreviations and emojis should be avoided, and texting won’t work if it’s not range of cell phone towers, according to the news release.
“For a lot of these places around here with these mountains, you might have service, but as soon as you make a call it won’t go through,” Kerr said. “But you can send a text through. It gives us GPS coordinates and everything else.”
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