Calling 911 is difficult for people with a hearing loss. But now that two wireless carriers are connected to Vermont’s 911 call center communication will be much easier.
The 90 percent of Vermonters covered by AT&T and Verizon Wireless are now able to text 911 in case of emergency, officials said Monday. The Vermont Enhanced 911 Board, which oversees the statewide emergency telecommunications system, is working with providers Sprint and T-Mobile to increase the coverage to more than 98 percent within the next year.
Users will have to text their location as the system is still unable to pinpoint the location of emergency cellphone calls. The traditional TTY phone service will remain an option for callers with a hearing loss, officials said.
The new service will be promoted in a social media campaign and with radio and TV commercials over the next two weeks. Vermont will be the first in the country to provide statewide 911 texting.
Texting for emergency service will not only help hearing-impaired citizens. For victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, texting can mean the difference between life and death, officials said.
“Victims of these crimes may find themselves in immediate danger where it may not be possible to make a phone call without a risk of escalating the violence,” said Keri Darling, director of Vermont Deaf Advocacy Services, at a news conference in Montpelier. “Being able to text emergency messages to 911 opens up one more possible avenue of safety and support for victims in potentially life-threatening situations.”
Emergency texting started as a test project in April 2012. For more than a year, Verizon was the only provider of the service and it was not until AT&T joined forces this summer that the Vermont Enhanced 911 board decided to spread the word through a public education campaign.
“Vermont is leading the charge to fully implement 911 texting for all of its citizens,” said David Tucker, executive director at Vermont Enhanced 911 board. “It’s been one of the hottest topics in the 911 industry, next to funding.”
Vermont Enhanced 911 board paid $18,000 for the campaign to educate residents about the new service.
That’s the only money the state has put into the initiative. All other costs have been absorbed by AT&T, Verizon and Intrado, a Colorado-based company that is developing emergency communications technology. The Vermont Enhanced 911 board already has a contract with Intrado to provide technology for emergency communication.
“When we will get into the next contract cycle there will probably be added costs,” he said. “But I don’t expect them to be very high.”
To work most effectively the person in an emergency should say where she/he is and what type of emergency it is in the first text message. The technology still doesn’t allow the call service to pinpoint from where the text message was sent.
One of the first texts the call center received contained a street address, no town or neighborhood. When the call center wrote back and asked about the cause of emergency, a source texted the word “suicide,” and then communication stopped, officials said. The emergency center discovered that it was a real street address and called the police in that town. When authorities went to the address it turned out that a person had hung himself. They managed to cut the rope and save him, Tucker said.
Another episode involving emergency texting took place on a Friday night in August 2012 in a domestic violence case. Officials said the husband came home drunk and the woman went into a closet and sent text messages to 911. She could keep the conversation for several minutes, and gave all the details from the closet. From those texts the police located the building and arrested the man, Tucker said.
Since the start in 2012, emergency call centers have responded to about 15 emergency texts. In total, they have received more than 185 texts and most of them were tests. Only a couple have been prank texts, according to Tucker.
“Last year someone in Vermont got arrested for making 75 prank voice calls (to 911),” he said. “So, unfortunately, this happens with voice calls as well.”