As of June 1, St. Charles County residents can text 911 in an emergency from their personal communication devices.
The county’s upgraded 911 system, which has been online since November, allows a majority of 911 calls to be received from wireless phones and other devices. A major priority for the system this year has been developing the capacity to receive 911 calls via texting, said Jeff Smith, the county’s emergency communications director.
“We’re now confident that’s ready to go,” said Smith. “The system is fully vetted with all the major carriers.”
Smith said texting is helpful particularly in emergency situations where someone can’t talk loudly because it may alert someone, such as when an intruder is in a home, during a domestic violence situation or when someone has a hearing or speech disability. But Smith said calling 911 is still preferred over texting 911 when it’s practical or safe.
Texting 911 is simple. County officials suggest these steps.
- Enter 911 in the “To” field of the text message.
- Send a brief message that includes the location and the emergency help needed.
- When responding to messages from a 911 dispatcher, use simple words, avoid texting lingo and abbreviations, and keep messages short and to the point.
The abuse of the text-to-911 system, such as texting fake emergencies, has the same legal ramifications as that of 911 telephone calls. In other words, it’s illegal.
Counties that have text-to-911 systems report that texting is only a small amount of their calls. One nearby county said they’re receiving about six 911 texts a month.
“It’s not something currently that’s being overwhelmingly used,” Smith said. “I think it will probably increase as word gets out that it’s up and running and functioning.”
There are some limitations to texting 911:
- For now, the county’s 911 system cannot receive pictures or videos via texting, according to Smith.
- Texts can’t be part of a group text message – it must be a direct message between the sender and the 911 system dispatcher.
- The county’s text-to-911 system only works in St. Charles County.
- Someone who wants to text 911 has to have a text or data plan.
- Texting to 911 isn’t available in a “roaming” mode. A sender should receive a “not delivered” message from their wireless carrier if a text did not go through.
Even with limitations, Smith said, authorities are excited about the potential of 911 communications from personal communication devices. The ability to text a picture or video of a suspect or incident could help emergency responders – something that county officials are hoping to implement as new technology emerges.
Smith said that adding texting to the county’s 911 system was included in its $3.6 million contract with Emergency CallWorks Inc., of Birmingham, Alabama, which it entered in November 2014 to deploy and operate the system for seven years.
The new system replaces an aging 911 system, in place since 2004. It not only utilizes new equipment but creates a single system for emergency providers and eliminates gaps in service. It features equipment operated both in and out of the county, ensuring a backup in case of an emergency, Smith said. The system also allows 911 operators to visually pinpoint where a caller is located on a map.
Seven of the county’s PSAPs [Public Service Answering Points] that handle 911 calls have begun using the new system. Those PSAPs include the cities of Saint Charles, St. Peters, O’Fallon, Lake Saint Louis, Wentzville, the county Police Department and the county Department of Dispatch and Alarm.
County officials say they expect volumes to increase. In 2016, the 911 system responded to 160,400 calls, which breaks down to 439 per day or 18 per hour. The system responded to 155,580 calls in 2014, at a rate of 17 per hour.