Durham 911 Center launches texting trial

DURHAM, N.C. On Wednesday, August 3rd, Durham residents and visitors who are also Verizon Wireless customers can send a text message to 911 for emergency help as part of a six-month trial to test the potential of offering this new technology.

From now until January 31, 2012, the Durham Emergency Communications Center will accept 911 text messages from Verizon Wireless customers as part of a collaboration between the City of Durham, Verizon Wireless, and Intrado. Intrado, which is an emergency communications technology provider, has recently installed next-generation 911 software that enables text messaging in the Durham Emergency Communications Center.

The Durham Emergency Communication Center is the first 911 center in North Carolina, as well as the second 911 center in the United States, to enable "text-to-911" technology using 911 digits and live call takers. The first and only other 911 center using Intrado's technology is Black Hawk County, Iowa. The "text-to-911" software trial period is at no cost to the Durham Emergency Communications Center.

According to James Soukup, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center, this texting trial is specifically designed for two types of emergency scenarios. "The way people communicate is evolving and 911 centers across the nation are evaluating how to adapt to the digital age by offering multiple ways for people to reach out to 911 when they need help," Soukup said. "When asked to participate in this trial, we went into it as an opportunity to help folks who are hearing impaired and potential victims who can't afford for someone to hear them make a 911 voice call."

Since the "text-to-911" is a trial program, Soukup explained that there are several parameters that users should be aware of before sending an emergency text message to 911. "At times, there can be limitations to sending an emergency text message and we want to test and evaluate all of the aspects of 'text-to-911' technology before any potential widespread implementation," Soukup said. "We understand the interest and potential value of this technology, but given the needs of public safety, it is imperative that we thoroughly examine all scenarios during the trial period to see if this type of technology works and if any problems arise that must be corrected by Intrado before Verizon Wireless and other service providers work with public safety agencies to implement 'text-to-911' on a widespread level."

According to Craig Frost, executive director of Network with Verizon Wireless, the work with the Durham Emergency Communications Center and Intrado will allow them to evaluate the potential of the "text-to-911" system more broadly. "Verizon Wireless has been at the forefront of 911 public safety innovation. We are participating in this trial to evaluate the possibilities of 911 texting systems with an emphasis on reliable and secure emergency communications for our customers," Frost said. "Armed with the knowledge obtained from the trial in Durham, we hope to better understand the challenges of 'text-to-911' technology and determine if it's something that we can provide for our customers in Durham and elsewhere."

    Verizon Wireless customers in Durham should keep the following in mind if they send a text to 911 during the trial period:
  • Customers should use the texting option only when calling 911 is not an option.
  • It can take longer to receive a text message because someone must enter the text, the message then goes through the system, and the 911 telecommunicator must read the text and then text back. Picking up the phone and calling 911 is still the most efficient way to reach emergency help. Texting is not always instantaneous, which is critical during a life-threatening emergency.
  • Providing location information and nature of the emergency in the first text message is imperative since the Durham Emergency Communications Center will not be able to access the cell phone location or speak with the person who is sending the text. Text abbreviations or slang should never be used so that the intent of the dialogue can be as clear as possible.
  • Customers must be in range of cell towers in the Durham County area. If customers are outside or near the edge of the county, the message may not reach the Durham Emergency Communications Center.
  • Texts sent to 911 have the same 160 character limit as other text messages.
  • Verizon Wireless customers must have mobile phones that are capable of sending text messages. Any text message to 911 will count either against their messaging bundle or be charged at 20 cents each.
  • At this point in the trial period, the messaging software pre-loaded onto the Droid from Motorola (original version) does not format text messages correctly when the digits "911" are entered as the "To" address. Installing the free "Verizon Messages" application for Droids (version 1.3.24a) from the Android Market fixes this issue.
  • The texting function should only be used for emergency situations that require an immediate response from police, fire or emergency medical services. Non-emergency issues should still be communicated to the Durham Emergency Communication Center through its non-emergency line at (919) 560-4600.
According to Soukup, the recent installation of Intrado's next-generation 911 technology is providing the Durham Emergency Communication Center with the building blocks necessary to the support additional services beyond text messaging, such as receiving cell phone pictures and video clips as well as advanced address intelligence. "We are the first center in North Carolina, and one of a relatively small number in the United States, to have next-generation 911 technology. Our center is now taking a giant step toward having capabilities that we've never had before. We are also working toward being able to accept cell phone images submitted by callers, which in turn can be used by our police or fire departments to see the scene before they even arrive," Soukup said. "At the end of the day, we're going to be able to provide faster and better service, not only to our residents and visitors, but to our emergency response departments as well. This text messaging trial is just the beginning of our efforts to help fulfill our Strategic Plan's goal of being a safe and secure community."

The next-generation 911 technology upgrade, approved by City Council in September 2009, cost $103,500 and was funded by the 911 Surcharge Revenue Fund.

For more information about the "text-to-911" trial, visit the City's website at www.DurhamNC.gov/Departments/911; watch the latest episode of "CityLife" on DTV8 (Time Warner Cable channel 8) or on demand at www.DurhamNC.gov/DTV8/CityLife.cfm ; or contact Soukup at (919) 560-4191 or by e-mail at James.Soukup@DurhamNC.gov.

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