Texting 911 will be option by 2017

Franklin County residents should be able to text 911 for help by the end of the year, city and county officials said.

Under a plan signed last week by members of the 911 planning committee, residents seeking assistance from the Franklin County sheriff’s office, the Columbus Division of Police or the Grove City Police Department will be able to send a text message, said Ramona Patts, support services administrator for the Columbus Public Safety Department.

As part of an initiative by the Federal Communications Commission to expand its Text-to-911 program, the Franklin County, Columbus and Grove City 911 systems will be the first in central Ohio to have the program, Patts said.

“We have been spending a great deal of money updating the current 911 system so we can accept texts to 911,” she said.

The system is expected to cost $530,000, she said, which will come from money collected through a 25-cent charge on residents’ phone bills.
Text-to-911 is designed for those who are unable to call 911 for fear of drawing attention from a potential attacker. Think of someone hiding from a burglar. The system is also beneficial for those with hearing impairments, said Cecilia Weirick, the Franklin County Regional 911 coordinator.

“Text-to-911 has been really important to us because it’s very important to the deaf community,” Weirick said.

Patts added that Columbus has one of the largest deaf populations in the country.

The Text-to-911 program also will allow 911 dispatchers to text back and forth with those in need, Weirick said. Before the system goes up, those dispatchers will be required to go through training.

In Ohio, only three counties — Butler, Hamilton and Geauga — have the system. Hamilton County 911 Coordinator Ron Bien said the system allows dispatchers in the Cincinnati area to take other calls while simultaneously answering texts.

Bien said that since the system was installed in Hamilton County in November 2013, dispatchers have received an average of one to two texts per day. In 2015, they received 452 texts.

He added that about half of those texts are sent inadvertently through apps designed to notify family or friends when someone needs assistance.

“They don’t know it sends texts to 911, too,” he said.

The biggest problem with Text-to-911 has been pinpointing locations, Bien said. Sometimes, coordinates retrieved from text messages are imprecise.

With Franklin County’s new system, that likely won’t be a problem, Weirick said. And those texting can send in their own locations, she added.

The Delaware County, Dublin and Westerville 911 systems will see a Text-to-911 upgrade sometime in 2017, Patts said. That upgrade will cost $440,000.

Weirick added that video chatting with 911 may be possible someday.

“We’re going to have to get with the times,” Weirick said. “This is it. We have to go with the future.”

ebohatch@dispatch.com

@emilybohatch

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