911 dispatcher

Deiva McCarthy, a 911 dispatcher and supervisor at the Denton Police Department, works using six computer monitors on Nov. 8 at the police headquarters. Dispatchers can answer text-to-911 messages on their screens, although Denton County’s emergency communications district has seen less than 5,000 text sessions since the option rolled out in 2016.

Although texts for 911 services in Denton County haven’t been as common as calls, the option is much needed for people with disabilities and those in situations where it’s too dangerous to make a phone call, Denco 9-1-1’s executive director said.

Denco 9-1-1, Denton County’s emergency communications district, handles and maintains the 911 network here. Five years after the text message option rolled out in Denco’s service area, there have only been 4,506 texting sessions, as of Wednesday. Greg Ballentine, Denco’s executive director, said they didn’t know what to expect when the option was up and running Oct. 4, 2016.

At about 900 text sessions per year, the figure is much lower than Denco’s 264,905 phone calls last year. Ballentine said the texts and calls are logged separately.

“An easier way to answer might be to say I’m not really shocked at the number,” Ballentine said. “It’s less than 1,000 a year, which is 3-ish a day across the district. … I think our public education [messaging] has probably kept the number pretty low, which is a good thing because a voice call is better.”

He said calls are still ultimately better because the back-and-forth nature of texting takes up more time than a phone call does, and because dispatchers can listen in for other important context clues in a call.

But that doesn’t mean the texting service isn’t needed, Ballentine said. People with vocal and hearing impairments were a group at the forefront of Denco staffers’ minds when they started talking about texting services.

“It’s primarily to give citizens another method of contacting emergency services if they find themselves in a situation where they’re unable to communicate verbally,” Ballentine said. “What we’ve found is that primary users … that benefit most are speech- and hearing-impaired callers. But also there’s situations where reporting a crime in progress, speaking could put a caller at risk.”

Before this service was available, Ballentine said people with those impairments and disabilities had to use a telecommunications device for the deaf. They operated under several acronyms that referred to text-based telecommunications devices for people who couldn’t understand speech even with amplification, according to the University of Washington.

Sarah Wainscott, a professor at Texas Woman’s University who focuses on pediatric deafness, said Texas has become “one of the leaders” in implementing 911 text messaging.

“It hasn’t all come up at one time,” Wainscott said of areas adopting 911 texts. “There are some states that kind of rolled it out all at once. … Texas is pretty widely covered geographically.”

The texting service launched in Denton County five years ago, but Ballentine said they had wanted to get it off the ground earlier than that. He said officials had to wait for technology to catch up. In 2014, the four major wireless carriers in the U.S. met a voluntary deadline to have the technology ready to provide text-to-911 services, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“Wireless carriers need to be able to transmit the text information to the appropriate agency based on the geographic location of the caller,” Ballentine said. “It’s different than texting someone with a unique number. To call 911, it’s routed to the emergency communication center. The other [major side] is having 911 equipment at the local level to receive and process that information.”

Wainscott said one challenge for people — especially students in Denton County — is that text-to-911 services still aren’t available everywhere they go.

“At TWU, we have 70 students who are registered as deaf or hard of hearing with special services,” she said. “They don’t all come from Denton. They may be from an area [where it’s not available] and they’re not familiar with it. It’s a real transient community … and [a challenge is] making sure people who enter are aware of it and how to utilize it.”

Even if they never have to use the service, Wainscott said having that plan can alleviate anxiety.

“I think there’s always lot of anxiety in what’s going to happen in an emergency, how am I going to be able to communicate,” she said. “Even if they never have to use that 911 text, simply knowing it’s available and ‘here’s a plan when I’m in trouble’ can reduce some of that anxiety and helps us feel safer.”

The geographic location technology for texting services is still the same as when you make a call. The call or text will reach first responders very close to the caller, and as technology improves, it will become more accurate.

“As location information becomes more precise, we’re working to do indoor mapping to some commercial or public facilities so that eventually, 911 calls from a school, for example, we’ll be able to know what specific location within the school the caller is calling from,” Ballentine said.

Wainscott said something else text services, and even dispatchers, can improve on is simplified language.

“There are some deaf students who are really good readers, but typically deaf students have difficulty reading and deaf adults have a low reading level,” Wainscott said. “Simply text-based doesn’t necessarily alleviate the language barrier.”

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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