Last updated: July 03. 2014 8:31AM - 720 Views
By - cwarner@civitasmedia.com

Charles Warner|Daily TimesUnion County 911 Assistant Supervisor Amy Ponder monitors the screens at her station in the Union County Communication Department. The county has been gradually upgrading its emergency communications equipment in order to be prepared for the “next generation 911” including “text-to-911” capability.
Charles Warner|Daily TimesUnion County 911 Assistant Supervisor Amy Ponder monitors the screens at her station in the Union County Communication Department. The county has been gradually upgrading its emergency communications equipment in order to be prepared for the “next generation 911” including “text-to-911” capability.
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UNION COUNTY — Even as steps are being taken to prepare for the implementation of “next generation 911” including text-to-911 capability the process will still be expensive but nevertheless beneficial to the community according to Union County Sheriff David Taylor.

All across America the advance of communications technology is enabling emergency communications departments to begin offering text-to-911 capability to residents of the communities they serve. In Union County, however, the text-to-911 service is not currently available to the general public, but efforts are under way to prepare the county’s 911 system to be able to provide it.

Taylor said that the county currently has the Telecom Deaf Device or TDD through AT&T which allows county residents who are deaf and/or mute to communicate with 911 through a device that plugs into their phone line. The device enables the resident to type out a message which is received by the dispatchers at 911 who are able to type out their replies using the TDD on their end.

“What we have now is for people who are deaf-mute,” Taylor said. “This telecommunications device allows those who are deaf and have impaired speech to communicate. It uses a keyboard on both ends to send and receive messages.”

Taylor said that the text-to-911 systems which are gradually being implemented across the country gives a community’s residents the option of texting an emergency call to 911, but cautioned that it is not intended to replace verbal communication.

“This new texting is not meant to take the place of 911 calls,” Taylor said. “It is only for situations where this is their only means of communication such as if they being held hostage in a bank robbery. It is in no way intended to do away with 911.”

Taylor said the county is already taking steps toward being able to provide the text-to-911 option to county residents including receiving an offer from Verizon. However, Taylor said that the offer from Verizon will enable the county to provide the service to Verizon customers only.

“Right now Verizon is offering that service to us for free,” Taylor said. “The only catch is that you have to have a Verizon smartphone and data package. We haven’t adopted the deal with Verizon but we are going to.”

Taylor said that other vendors are also offering the text-to-911 service, but are not making the same for free offer as Verizon.

Another step the county has been taking is upgrading its emergency communications equipment to be ready for what Taylor described as the “next generation 911” technology including text-to-911.

“We’ve already been upgrading our equipment at 911 to be compatible with next generation technology,” Taylor said. “Everything we do is to make sure it will be compatible to use.”

Taylor said the next generation will not only include text-to-911 capability, but also the capability of the emergency communications department to receive, record, and store all types of calls. He said those calls would include phone calls, texts, and even videos with the latter being sent out to law enforcement and other emergency responders if necessary.

“With next generation 911 a person who witnesses a crime like a bank robbery can send in a video of it to 911,” Taylor said. “The video could then be put out by 911 to deputies and even saved and used as evidence.”

While the county has been taking steps on its own to prepare for next generation 911 including text-to-911, Taylor said he believes there will eventually be a federal mandate that all counties implement the system. He said the county will then have an experience similar to what it had in complying with a federal mandate requiring the county’s emergency communication systems to be narrowband compatible.

“There has not been a mandate that people have got to be next generation 911 compliant, but it would not surprise me if one is handed down,” Taylor said. “It will not be cheap for our county to adopt anymore than it was when the federal government mandated we be narrowband compliant. That cost over $1 million and I don’t know how much next generation 911 compliance will cost but it will be extremely costly.”

Despite the cost, Taylor said next generation 911 will benefit both the public who will have additional avenues of communicating their emergencies and emergency responders who will have additional information about the situations they are responding to.

“It will speed up getting the information out to the emergency personnel,” Taylor said. “Now what we have to do now is in the case of robberies is go down to the store or bank and get its security videos and that is time consuming. With this, we will be able to receive videos and get that information out to our deputies. It is not only a benefit to law enforcement but all emergency personnel.

“For the public it means quicker response when they report an emergency,” he said. “It means law enforcement and emergency personnel being better prepared in responding. If we have a fire, we will be able to send the video to the fire chief and he can determine then what equipment he needs on the scene.”

Union County Council

If and when the county implements next generation 911 including text-to-911 capability, whether of its own volition or because of a state or federal mandate, it will likely have to bear most if not all of the cost of doing so. Some members of council weighed in on this possibility, expressing support for the technology, but concerns about the cost.

Supervisor Tommy Sinclair said the move to next generation 911 including text-to-911 capability will be another step in the county’s continuing efforts to upgrade its emergency communications system.

“The goal and practice has been to upgrade all aspects of public safety and certainly the 911 texting would be one of those,” Sinclair said. “It impacts health care, fire protection, police protection, and maybe even mass emergency notification situations such as a tornado. I think council would do its best to enable that type of communication system.”

Councilman Ben Ivey, however, said he doesn’t see the county implementing the system in the near future because of the cost involved, unless it is mandated by the state or federal government. If, however, it is mandated then the county would have to find some way to implement it despite the cost involved. Until then, however, Ivey said council would have to continue being as conservative as possible with the county’s finances in order to minimize any future additional burdens on the taxpayer.

Mandates to implement the system but no funds to assist the county in doing so is a concern of Councilman Randall “Chump” Hanvey.

“I’m all for anything that will get help to someone that’s in need of help,” Hanvey said. “On the flip side, with the budget and money as tight as it is, we have to look at the overall cost to see if we can afford it.

“If, however, the feds or the state mandates it then we have no choice in the matter,” he said. “I just hope they will send some money with it.”

The Public

As part of this story, The Union Daily Times solicited public input on the issue of text-to-911 through the following post on Facebook:

“Technology is emerging and being implemented across much of the country to allow people to text to 911 in emergencies, rather than call. Do you think this would be beneficial? Would you use a text-to-911 service? Do you think such a service is worth the extra cost that might be necessary from local government? Tell us what you think!”

The following responses were posted on our Facebook page:

Rodney Solesbee — no

Kathy Callahan Robertson — No

Treaky W Knox — no

Molly Porter — No if I tried to text I would be dead before help got there.

Josh N Courtney Jennings — Yes it would appeal to the younger crowd

Kathy Callahan Robertson — If we can call or text would be okay. I could dial 911 faster than I could text!

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