911 Texting Service Will Soon be Available in Two Nebraska Cities

By ZACH PLUHACEK, Lincoln Journal Star | November 11, 2014

He always thought they were saying “lots of love.” It turns out, all those people who text messaged “LOL” to Mark Conroy were just laughing at him.

Conroy’s confusion about the acronym for “laugh out loud” is among a whole list of concerns he’ll need to address come December, when people in the Omaha and Kearney, Neb., areas will be able to start texting 911 to report emergencies, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Text-to-911 service should go live around Omaha on Dec. 15, says Conroy, director of Douglas County’s 911 center. In Buffalo County, Sheriff Neil Miller expects the Kearney area’s system to be ready soon after.

Lincoln will have to wait.

“We don’t want your text message,” said Tom Casady, the city’s public safety director. “We can’t handle it.”

Lincoln and more than a dozen counties in Southeast Nebraska are in the process of replacing their individual 911 systems with a single hub that would route callers to their local 911 centers. The switch will take time and could initially cost upward of $1 million to $2 million, although it is intended to save money in the long run.

And while the new equipment should make enabling text-to-911 easier for Lincoln and its neighbors, Casady says he’s in no rush to adopt technology that is “not quite ready for primetime yet.”

Even in counties that are lining up to install their own text-to-911 systems, the level of demand is unclear.

“When people are really in emergencies, they are not likely to just send a text and assume that help is coming,” said Jon Rosenlund, Grand Island’s emergency management director, during a recent work session on text-to-911 hosted by the state Public Service Commission.

When Rosenlund told his “exceptionally intelligent” 18-year-old daughter about the workshop he was going to, she asked, ‘”Why would you want to text 911? Just call,”‘ he said.

Casady’s message is the same: “Pick up the telephone and call us,” he said.

Text-to-911 is an interim solution as the telecommunications industry works toward something called Next-Generation 911 – a system that will allow people to not only call or text during emergencies but also send photos and videos to 911. That step will require local 911 centers to upgrade to digital call-taking systems.

For now, the ability to text 911 is intended mostly for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

“We’ve been waiting for something like that for a long time,” said Kim Davis, a field representative for the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Two decades ago, she said, “You could just dial 911 and leave the handset off the hook … and hope someone would come.”

Now, many deaf people use video relay systems, which allow them to speak through a translator on their computer or smartphone. But texting might be more reliable and could save valuable seconds in an emergency, Davis said.

Nebraska’s 911 centers, most of which are run by county sheriff’s offices, aren’t proposing to limit text-to-911 service to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

There are other applications for the technology, such as victims of domestic violence who want to contact 911 without their partners knowing.

“You text if calling will put your life in danger,” said Conroy, the Douglas County 911 director.

But once text messaging is an option, 911 centers expect people to take advantage.

“Once they know they can, why not?” Rosenlund asked.

Casady will tell you why not.

911 call takers need to be able to ask questions, he said. They need to get specific information in order to assess the situation and trigger the appropriate response.

“We’re going to be doing quite a bit of back and forth,” Casady said.

“Pick up the phone and dial.”

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