Texting 911 has pluses, drawbacks

Federal officials say Americans should be able to text 911 by 2014.
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As more people communicate via text message, the Federal government thinks texting should be another way to call for help.

But texts to 911 are still the future. You cannot text the emergency service now. But Steven Cook, executive director of the Hendricks County Communications Center says it is "inevitable we are going to see texting."

The FCC wants emergency planners and phone companies to be ready for it by 2014. No experts Eyewitness News talked with thought it could happen that quickly, but it is coming.

And it could have pluses. Texts go faster than phone calls and are less likely to clog up emergency phone lines.

Tyler Wade of Plainfield said it sounded good.

"Might be able to save lives by getting more people in contact with 911. I wouldn't want people driving and texting," he said.

"Let's say there's someone right next to you and you want to be discreet about calling for help," said Tammy Wade.

"Say somebody is breaking in and you have to be quiet," said Cathy Kynard.

She was thinking of the Connecticut school shootings. A teacher could hide in a closet and quietly message for help.

"We probably get about a dozen of those kind of cases a year, where somebody is breaking into a house," said Cook.

But there's a downside to texting 911. The infrastructure is nowhere near ready and vague directions could send police to the wrong home in an emergency.

Say you text just "123 Main Street" in an emergency. Cook says there are "two of them in Brownsburg, two of them in Pittsboro."

In fact, there are 13 such addresses across Hendricks County, meaning the person sending the text would have to remember to include the city in the emergency message.

And what if the texter doesn't know where he or she is, out on a country road, perhaps? Cook called 911 from a smartphone with GPS while standing right over the dispatcher's shoulder. But his phone told dispatch he was standing somewhere else - about two miles away.

Also lost with texting 911, dispatchers can't easily give texters lifesaving information, like how to perform CPR. Time might be lost arranging to phone the texter back.

As Cook says, the job "is all about delivering the service in a timely manner."

While text 911 may not be here by mid-2014, it is definitely on the way, especially with the next generation of dispatchers and citizens so comfortable with texting.