Texting 911 from a cellphone went live Jan. 23 in Franklin County, and since then, the Columbus Division of Police has fielded frequent exchanges in which people text when they could call instead.
To text 911, users enter "911" into the recipient field of their mobile device and text a brief but detailed message that includes location and the type of emergency. The initiative's website, commissioners. franklincountyohio.gov/text911, says any text-enabled phone or tablet computer with a data plan that allows texts would work, regardless of service provider.
Text messages sent to 911 in Franklin County could be received at 911 dispatch centers at any of five primary wireless public-safety answering points, or PSAPs, within the county, said William Griffith, communications-systems manager for the Columbus Department of Public Safety. They are Columbus, Dublin, Franklin County, Grove City and Westerville facilities, he said.>> Which counties have text-to-911? << >> FCC guidelines on using text-to-911 <<
About 75 percent of the texts the Columbus PSAP receives could be the subject of calls or false or improper communications, said Columbus police Cmdr. Chris Bowling.
For example, Bowling said, a text that police received about a suspicious person in a neighborhood could have been a call. Others have said they texted 911 because they don't have any voice minutes left on their cellphones, he said.
Though some people prefer texting to calling, dispatchers are able to ask questions more quickly via calls, Bowling said.
As of May 30, the Columbus PSAP has had 712 text-to-911 sessions, with an average duration of 349.9 seconds per session, Bowling said. That is almost 6 minutes per session.
As for 911 voice calls, as of May 30, the department has handled 262,501 inbound 911 calls with an average duration of 93.3 seconds per call, he said. That average equates to roughly 1 1/2 minutes per call.
Texting 911 also doesn't show dispatchers a person's location, he said.
Mobile location services aren't included in the texting technology, so locations must be texted manually, according to a fact sheet at commissioners.franklincountyohio.gov/text911.
The reason is that current location-service technology from cellular-service providers is activated only when a call is made and not for texts, Bowling said.
Texts to 911 also can't be sent as part of a group text message, and emojis can't be used, said Cecilia Weirick, regional 911 communications coordinator for the Franklin County Office of Homeland Security and Justice Programs.
Dispatchers also cannot receive video or photos, Weirick said.
Although texting to 911 could be an option for someone in an emergency situation who doesn't feel safe calling, the service also was presented as an option for those with a hearing impairment.
Bowling said the Columbus PSAP has been receiving some text communication from those individuals.
However, dispatchers also have received texts with foul language, he said, although police haven't yet had cause to track anyone down for misuse of 911.
Other PSAPs have had different experiences.
Kelley Davidson, 911 communications manager for Grove City, said text-to-911 "has been almost nonexistent" at the Grove City PSAP. As of June 3, the PSAP has handled 11 texts to 911 since the service launched, she said.
One man texted dispatchers to double-check the service was provided in his area, Davidson said.
"People are being very respectful of it," she said.
Still, one resident whom dispatchers already knew has difficulty communicating was able to use the text service to call for a medic, Davidson said.
Davidson said she is happy it appears that Grove City residents understand when texting 911 is appropriate. When using the service, she said, remembering to tell dispatchers the location of the incident is the most important piece of information.
Jay Somerville, technical-services bureau director for the Northwest Regional Emergency Communications Center in Dublin, said the Dublin PSAP also hasn't seen a great volume of texts to 911.
The NRECC went live with text-to-911 capability March 6, 2018, earlier than Franklin County because the center already had the required technology in place, Somerville said.
Since then, dispatchers have taken 85 texts to 911, he said.
The majority of those were either accidental texts or from people who wanted to test to see if the service was real, Somerville said.
"We definitely don't encourage that," he said.
Three text sessions resulted in dispatches, Somerville said. One was from an individual who heard another person outside a home, an incident determined to be unfounded, he said.
Another dispatch was made after a nurse at a skilled-nursing facility who is hearing impaired requested an EMS response for a patient via text, Somerville said.
Instead of using a special phone at the nurse's station, she was able to text from her cellphone at the patient's bedside, he said.
"That worked beautifully," Somerville said.
Another texter reported a domestic incident at a Columbus residence, Somerville said. In that instance, dispatchers transferred the person to Columbus dispatchers, who sent a response, he said.
Like Somerville, Holly Wayt, communications manager for the city of Westerville, said most of the texts dispatchers with the Westerville PSAP receive were sent by mistake or to test the service.
She said from January through May, only about 1% of 911 contacts had been through text. She said 37 911 text messages were recorded in that time period.
In one instance, a child texted dispatchers about a domestic situation, Wayt said. That scenario very much adheres to the message to the public given when the text-to-911 service was launched -- call when you can; text when you can't, she said.
"The majority of people call," she said.
For more information, go to commissioners.franklincountyohio.gov/text911.