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Minnesota starts regionally in pursuit of statewide text-to-911 implementation

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Deploying text-to-911 service regionally is the fastest, simplest and most efficient way to provision a lifesaving service that the public not only expects, but craves.

By Dana Wahlberg

Calling 911—for oneself, for a friend or relative, or even a complete stranger—is a highly traumatic experience, because it means that someone is having the worst day of their lives. Now, imagine being in that circumstance, but without the ability to call 911—the trauma increases exponentially. Such is the experience for the deaf, deaf-blind, hearing-impaired and speech-impaired communities every time they need emergency assistance. It also is the experience of those for whom making a 911 voice call might place them into even greater danger, such as during a domestic-violence incident, a hostage event or a home invasion.

A few years ago, during an Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) national conference, Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, spoke about such an occurrence. Matlin—a devoted advocate for text-to-911 service—said at the time, “Instead of being able to instantly text to 911, I had to trust and leave it to other bystanders. And I shudder to think, what if it had been me in the accident—how could I have called?”

Fortunately, much progress has been made in implementing text-to-911 service in the nearly five years since Matlin uttered her remarks, with startling impact—here are just a couple of examples:

  • In January 2017, a North Carolina woman who had been kidnapped and tossed into the trunk of a car was found by law enforcement because she was able to exchange texts with a 911 telecommunicator during her ordeal.
  • A year earlier, in Colorado, a PSAP received a 911 call from the passenger in a vehicle traveling on Interstate 70 whose driver was threatening suicide. Due to the volatility of the situation, the caller was unable to continue the call, but was able to keep the telecommunicator apprised through a series of 911 texts. Eventually, a law-enforcement officer called the driver and while he was distracted, the passenger was able to wrest the gun from him.

There should be no doubt at this point that text to 911 is an incredibly important public-safety service, in large measure because it provides equal access to the 911 system to everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

Still in doubt for many, however, is how to implement text-to-911 service. Some areas of the country are rolling it out on a county-by-county basis. But others—notably, the states of Minnesota, Indiana, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine—are implementing the service on a statewide basis. This article explains why the statewide is the optimal approach and examines some of the obstacles that need to be overcome to make it happen.

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