A person is driving down U.S. 221 and comes across a wreck with potentially fatal injuries. Wanting to relay the message to first responders as quick as possible, the driver pulls out a cell phone takes a photo and texts all the information he can provide to 911.
Would the 911 responder in Ashe County receive it? Not yet, but as the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office is updating its 911 call centers and switching the services, the potential of texting to 911 could be arriving soon for the community.
Right now, Ashe County is in the process of transitioning its 911 center to Motorola Intrado, a company that allows for 911 call centers to receive text messaging. Ashe County is presently using copper wire lines, which have been in place since 1962, which they transform to IP based information through CenturyLink.
“The Intrado network will be entirely IP based from the moment it leaves someone’s house or office on its route to us, it will be done over internet IP protocol,” said Kevin Hardy, director of communications for the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office.
The Intrado network has an option available for texting to 911, which could help first responders receive information as soon as possible.
As of May 30, two jurisdictions in the state (City of Durham and Cabarrus County) have implemented the text-to-911 program. Within the next year, Ashe County is looking to add texting capability to its 911 center.
“An option available to us through Intrado is to receive texting,” Hardy said. “We did not budget for it in the implementation, because the requirements for the cell phone providers to be able to send to 911, the date requirement was May 15 of this year.”
Hardy said he chose not to immediately request to budget for it because they wanted to go ahead and have the Intrado system set up before adding the text-to-911 option. There are plans to request to budget the program, which would cost approximately $19,000 throughout the course of the contract, through e911 funds, which are funds given to the county by the state through phone usage fees.
“The money (for the 911 funds) goes to the state and they imburse it based on your expenditures and needs,” he said. “This didn’t cost the taxpayers anything, but it costs the phone users. You have to have a phone to call us anyway.”
The new plan will cost near $542,000 following the initial set up fee and monthly costs of having the system run through the contract. Adding the text option would raise the price to approximately $561,000, but the cost would be added to the monthly rate.
Hardy said while texting to 911 will be available in the near future, it should only be used in certain situations. Talking to 911 verbally, the center can relay the information in 60 to 90 seconds, while through texting it could take as long as 11 minutes.
“If you’re kidnapped in the trunk of a car and you can’t call, or you’re in a situation where you can’t talk, then texting is a viable option,” he said.
While speaking on the phone, communicators are able to size up the situation and have an accurate description of what the scene is like. Although, when texting becomes available, the county would also be able to receive photo messages as well.
“As a first responder, I would love to have a picture of the event I am going to,” Hardy said. “As a telecommunicator, I like to see it too, because I can see the hazards they may see. You could also do video if you wanted to, but you’re limited by the bandwidth on how long it takes to get here.”
Hardy said the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office, which handles the 911 Call Center in the area, is approximately six months into making the change to the Intrado network. Plans are to begin in-house testing of the network in late July and being completely live by Fall 2014.
“We will have the ability to transfer call data and call locations to Watauga County,” Hardy said. “We can transfer the call, but by voice only. We can already transfer to Alleghany and Wilkes because they are served through our Elkin central office of CenturyLink.”
Right now, Ashe County cannot transfer calls to Johnson County, Tennessee or Grayson County, Virginia. Cell phones create a difficult problem, because a driver could be calling in Grayson County, but be picking up a cell signal in Ashe County, making the time response time even longer.
“We’re able to transfer some of them, but we didn’t have the full capability,” Hardy said. “This will eliminate that. I can transfer a call if I needed to, to Jacksonville, North Carolina. Intrado gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility.”
County manager Sam Yearick said he fully expects Ashe County to eventually go to allowing text messaging to 911.
“It’s just the way of the world,” he said. “We have to keep up with the times.”
Yearick also added that it is a trend that will happen, and he can see the benefits of allowing text messaging to a 911 center, including having information already transcribed to the 911.
“I can imagine a place where you wouldn’t want to pick up a phone and call 911,” he said. “If somebody is robbing your house it would be safer to hide and text.”
Ashe County Sheriff James Williams also spoke of the importance of adding the new 911 system and how Ashe County works to stay up to date with emergency communications technology.
“Since moving here (to the new building) and before we moved here, since I’ve been Sheriff, anytime we can upgrade, make the county safer and make our response time better, I like to take advantage of it,” he said. “We like to stay on the cutting edge of technology with all the surrounding counties and state so we can provide the best protection we can.”
Williams said Ashe County is moving toward texting to 911 capabilities, but they are waiting to see how successful it is in other jurisdictions.
“Sometimes it’s best to sit back let other people try it and see how it works first,” Williams said. “They can get the bugs out of (the system) before you get it.”
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.