Jake Reitano, 29, a Genesee County 911 telecommunicator, sits in front of five computer screens and is ready to receive 911 emergency voice calls from residents in need. As of six months ago, he can respond to 911 text messages – from those who might be facing a circumstance in which using their voice could escalate their dangerous situation.
“Whether an emergency call comes in the form of a voice or a text,” Reitano says, “I’m here to help provide and dispatch the care and treatment they need.”
Genesee County residents can text an emergency to 911 with their cell phones and expect a text message back from operators like Reitano.
“A text message came in from a woman who hid her phone and silently sent us a message indicating that her husband had doused her and her children with gasoline and was threatening to light a match,” says Dave Ackley, director of the Genesee County 911 Center, located near Corunna and Linden Roads, in Flint Township.
Ackley says he doesn’t want to think about what kind of outcome might have happened without the emergency texting option.
Steve Tabit, the 911 Call Center Supervisor, agrees. “Sometimes, it is safer to reach out for 911 help through a text,” says Tabit, who explained that in July 2016, Genesee County implemented a cutting-edge, web-based text-to-911 software program designed by INdigital Telecom. The Indiana-based company provided the first public safety network of its kind in the United States.
Tabit, Ackley and other 911 staff researched various vendors and liked INdigital Telecom and its reputation for offering an innovative text-to-911 software platform. They then had to collaborate with the big four cellular phone carriers – Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile – before the text-to-911 program could go live. “We didn’t have to buy any hardware or equipment because it’s a software program,” Ackley says. “But there was a lot to prepare for its arrival, and of course, making sure it was secure was important.”
The undertaking included training 911 operators to handle incoming emergency text messages. “During the training phase, we wondered if we’d get a large volume of false texts or people just using it to see if it actually works.” Initially, there was a spike in text sessions but it has leveled off, he says.
New protocol and scripted messages help 911 operators transfer incoming texts to their CAD screen and then they use their phone, radio, map and call screens to dispatch police, fire or ambulance according to the need of the person in distress.
The local 911 site employs a crew of about 50 operators who work eight- or twelve- hour shifts around the clock to answer more than 30,000 incoming calls per month – and now, they receive roughly 150 emergency text messages, too.
Their monthly stat reports indicate steady growth in the number of 911 calls received via text messages.
“This technology is in its infancy,” Ackley adds. Although texting an emergency to 911 is new, he says something called Next Generation 911 is on the horizon.
“Eventually, we’re going to see cameras installed in the emergency and warning light-bars on top of police cars. The cameras will be able to live stream video to the 911 center,” he explains. “Or, when a bank alarm is set off, cameras inside the bank will upload live footage to the 911 screen. The 911 operators will be able to see what’s going on and give accurate details to the police officers being dispatched.” He offered another example – the ability to watch traffic stops. “When the officer turns on his overheads, that will activate a dash camera. This is what we one day could see.”
Even more exciting will be the ability for citizens to upload photos or videos to the 911 center. “People will be able to send pictures of accidents or situations to the 911 operator who will, in turn, be able to see exactly what is going on,” he explains.
For now, though, the text-to-911 program certainly benefits people in a variety of situations. “We’ve had people who witnessed car accidents text us to report it,” Tabit says. “We’ve also had domestic violence situations observed by neighbors come in through the text program. Texting, rather than talking, gives people a sense of confidentiality when they contact 911.”
The texting technology definitely has its advantages, but Ackley, Tabit and Reitano all heartily recommend voice-calling an emergency to 911, rather than texting.
“When I hear a person speak, I can sense more from the tone and timbre of their voice,” Reitano says. “I can also hear background noises, other voices, and I get a better grasp of what is going on. I can’t get that through a text message.”
Tabit indicates another reason why 911 voice calls are preferred. “The technology through the web-based software doesn’t always give us complete location accuracy,” Tabit says. “When a person calls from a cell phone, the GPS location is more precise than when we receive a text.”
Whatever emergency Genesee County residents might face, they can count on 911 operators like Reitano to answer their calls, or if they are unable to talk, they can text their emergency to 911 and expect help to come, just the same.