Indiana Makes Texting 911 a Reality

Text 911 for Help

Johnson County Public Safety Communications Executive Director Ryan Rather

Emergencies don’t come in one-size-fits-all situations, so when it comes to meeting the needs of its citizens, Indiana made the call – or text – to utilize advancements in emergency response technology.

In the spring of 2015, all 92 Hoosier counties launched a new Text 911 initiative, making it possible for cell phone users to text a message to 911. While Johnson County Public Safety Communications Executive Director Ryan Rather says “voice is still best,” he noted that the ability to text has huge advantages in unique cases.

“This is a great feature to have, especially when we are talking about someone who is hearing impaired,” Rather said. Before, those individuals had to rely on an interpreter or services like Relay Indiana. While these were effective, they weren’t always the most efficient way to get help when it’s needed.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Hearing Services, one in eight people ages 12 and older have hearing loss in both ears. Approximately 25 percent of adults ages 65 to 74 have disabling hearing loss with that percentage doubling after the age of 75.

Why Do We Need Text 911?

In addition to helping the hearing impaired, this relatively new technology offers options for those who might be victims of domestic abuse or a home invasion.

Rather advises residents to set their phones to silent and text dispatchers. Like the information you would normally give over the phone, it is important to include your address because cell signals don’t relay location through text messages. Also include as much information about your emergency as time allows. The dispatcher on the other end of the text message will continue to text back with necessary questions.

In 2016, the Johnson County Public Safety Communications staff had 323 text conversations, all of which were legitimate reasons to use the text service. While this number is lower than Rather expected, he believes they are doing their jobs, stressing the fact that voice calls are still the best route in getting the help you need. Voice calls reached more than 65,000 in Johnson County alone.

If you’re traveling to other states soon, it’s important to note that Indiana is one of the first states to mandate these services statewide. Back in 2015, Indiana consolidated public safety offices, making them more streamlined. What was once made up of five dispatch centers, Johnson County Public Safety was condensed to a single office in Franklin. From there, it dispatches all police and fire response teams responding to Johnson County emergency calls. Dispatchers work 12-hour shifts with no less than seven dispatchers available during the day; six are on call at night.

For Greenwood resident Rachel Miller, the fact that she can text an emergency was news. “As an occupational therapist and mom, my mind goes in multiple directions,” she said. “I can see how this would be wonderful for my nonverbal patients, and I plan to share this information with them. And, as a mom, I am comforted knowing that we have this option if we would ever need it.”

Text Works When Voice Might Not

For Rather, getting all the necessary information out to the public is important. For instance, texting 911 is a good option if your cell phone reception isn’t great. For example, in some communities like Princess Lakes, many residents can text but have trouble making voice calls. Additionally, some smaller cell phone providers may not have the text 911 capability, but larger carriers like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint do. You also must have a texting plan to utilize the service.

As the technology improves, Rather expects the emergency responders to put even more emphasis on this service. One day, he expects to be able to receive pictures and videos from texters, which may help emergency personnel know what to expect when responding to an emergency. As the federal government gets more pressure from groups like the hearing impaired, he also expects that it will become more of a priority nationwide. Until it becomes mandated by the Federal Communications Commission, he said, Indiana “is on the leading edge of this type of technology.”

Writer / Katie Burrell
Photographer / Jody Veldkamp