Texting 911 will be available as soon as next year

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. -- Emergency call centers across the country and here in Yakima County are getting ready to change the way they do business. Now that so many people let their fingers do the talking, alerting 911 will be a text message away.

All the texting these days has not only changed the way we communicate with the people we're close to, but also the people we rely on when lives are on the line.

"Text message is not being received by the 911 community with open arms, but we have to do it," said Yakima County Communications and Technology Manager, Wayne Wantland.

Emergency call centers are gearing up to handle your texts as well as your calls when you need help. Yakima County's facility already upgraded its equipment to handle text messages. It's waiting for cell phone companies to get set up to deliver the signals that will be required to handle the service.

If you text 911, you're probably wondering how your text will get to law enforcement in your area. It works the same way as phone calls. The cell phone tower identifies your network and then your cell phone tower routes to your county.

There are potential pitfalls. 911 center managers said emergency operators will have to do more work when a text message for help is received. Operators will have to text back and ask the necessary questions before they can send police or an ambulance. It could take more time.

David Morehouse was burglarized last October. He thinks an emergency phone call works better than texting.

"What comfort did you have hearing an operator's voice?" KIMA asked.
"Well, they were telling me the police were on the way, they were telling me that they were close and saying don't go in the house," said David.

911 center managers also prefer calls to texting during an emergency. One advantage from texting could be the ability to notify authorities of an intruder without tipping off the criminal. But, the voice helps determine how serious a situation is.

"We get to hear the background," said Wayne. "We get to hear the tone of voice of the person calling to see how much excitement and that is all indicators to us of the situation that's going on.

Texting to 911 will still take some time. Four of the country's biggest wireless carriers promise to be able to relay 911 text messages by next May.

Yakima County's 911 center will have to make more modifications once the cell phone companies get their system in place.