Local agencies not ready for 911 texting

“Text 911.”

That became theoretically possible last week, when the country’s four major cell phone carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon— began the process of officially routing “911” text messages to local police departments.

But in metro Atlanta only one major police agency (Paulding County) is set up to receive and respond to such texts.

Texting offers distinct advantages over voice calling in certain situations and for certain populations, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association.

“This is very important,” Fontes said. “In America, we have 41 million people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired who rely on texting to communicate. And this can be very helpful in cases of school shootings, domestic abuse or home invasions, because you don’t want to talk for fear.”

Besides, Americans love texting: in 2011, the average cell phone user sent or received more than three times as many texts as calls, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Nevertheless, local jurisdictions have reservations, describing the new technology as potentially cumbersome, disruptive and costly.

“We possess the equipment to receive emergency notifications via text, however, we do not have plans to implement the system,” said Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Jake Smith. “At this time there are too many questions regarding cost, changing technology, and too much potential for abuse.”

Smith said Gwinnett will review the issue periodically, leaving the door open for future implementation.

Robert Quigley, a spokesman for Cobb County, said the county hopes to have a program in place by October to receive 911 texts.

Fulton County spokeswoman Ericka Davis said the county is in the early stages of planning for the project but hasn’t set a timeline yet.

In DeKalb County, spokesman Burke Brennan said officials are looking at the technology, but that cost is a factor in when it will be introduced.

“We will get it eventually,” Brennan said. “But now it is not on the near horizon.”

The City of Atlanta doesn’t have the service now but is planning to offer it in coming years, said Elizabeth Espy, deputy manager of public affairs for the Atlanta Police Department. Espy said officials are meeting with the city’s telephone system provider about the option.

The only place in Metro Atlanta with any kind of 911 text program is Paulding County, which became the state’s first and only adopter on April 1.

Christina Cooper, deputy director of Paulding County’s 911 division, said as of now, only Verizon customers have access to the technology.

“This is a great opportunity for our community to be able to access 911. Especially if they are not able to make that voice call,” said Cooper, adding that Paulding will eventually expand the service to customers of the other carriers. “We felt it would be better to start slow with one carrier and see what kind of impact it had on us. Let us work out the bugs.”

The impact has been minimal and the bugs have been few: Since the program launched, only one person has sent a 911 text.

“And he was just testing the ability to do it,” Cooper said. “We weren’t expecting a lot, but I was expecting more. I am not shocked. People go back to that second nature, which is to call 911. That is why you don’t see a large number of calls being texted.”

Fontes said it is going to take time for the alternative method to become widely accepted.

“This is the biggest unknown. There have been test projects, and initially, even in the test environment, people still prefer to talk when they can,” Fontes said. “Because it is new, it is still unclear. But in two or three years, it will be interesting to see who uses it.”

Fontes said a bigger issue now might be location. With text messages, GPS location is not given. But with voice communications, responders can generally pinpoint the source of the call to within 500 to 1,000 feet.

“SMS texting was never designed for emergency communications. In texting, location doesn’t exist yet,” said Fontes, adding that capability should be coming in the next wave of cell phone development.

Russell Hopson, who is active in his South Atlanta neighborhood, said he regularly preaches to his neighbors to call 911 when they see something amiss. But he is mixed on the merits of a texting program.

“I can see the advantages of it,” Hopson said. “Especially the ability to let the police know about things in a more clandestine matter. But unfortunately, there is too much room for misuse. Where is the line between being helpful and harmful?”

But Susan Sim Oh said the value of the program could be immeasurable, especially among communities naturally suspicious of the police, or who use English as a second language.

Oh is the managing partner for WKTV, which manages Telemundo Atlanta and the Korean Television Network.

“We think it is a positive, only because there is a sense of being anonymous,” Oh said. “Among Latinos and Koreans, they don’t always want to be so public with their name. There is a fear of being identified, or of being asked too many questions.”

While acknowledging that simply calling is easier and provides crucial location information, Oh said some people have a deeply ingrained distrust of all officials.

“It is the unfamiliarity of how the government works here, versus their home country. They are private people,” Oh said. “The fear is ‘I spoke about the crime, now my family is in danger.’ So being in a one-way conversation is much more comforting to them.”