Kanawha Metro 911 launched a new service Monday allowing those in emergency situations to text 911 for police, fire or emergency medical services.
Currently, residents with Sprint or Verizon cell phone service only are able to text 911. Metro 911 is working with other providers to get the service activated.
Sheriff John Rutherford urged residents to call when possible, and save texting for times when the person is unable to speak due to a medical condition or when a voice call would endanger the texter.
He said emergency responders are able to assess the situation more quickly through phone calls.
“Call if you can,” he said. “Text when you can’t.”
Rutherford listed examples of times the service could prove useful, including during domestic violence, a kidnapping or a burglary.
“This is not meant for the routine, every day 911 call,” he said.
The service is also meant to be an additional service for residents who are hard of hearing, deaf or speech impaired.
The 911 center is the first in West Virginia to offer the service, Russell Emrick, Kanawha Metro 911 deputy director for technology, said.
The FCC website lists fewer than 60 centers throughout the country offering the service.
“It’s not mandatory for the carriers and it’s not mandatory for the 911 centers, so it’s being adopted locally as centers are ready,” Emrick said.
AT&T has expressed intent to launch the service within 60-90 days, Emrick said.
Officials advised residents with other cell companies to check with their providers to find out if they are eligible for text-to-911.
Residents who don’t have the service who text 911 will also receive a text back alerting them that the service is not available.
The 911 center began sending texts out on May 29 but couldn’t receive texts until Monday.
The center can send texts to all major carriers.
Outbound texts can be useful if a caller is disconnected or has to hang up for some reason, according to Rick McElhaney, Kanawha Metro 911 training coordinator.
“It didn’t even take 24 hours for it to benefit us,” he said.
The first day the center began sending texts, emergency responders received a call from a domestic violence victim.
“The lady couldn’t talk,” Rutherford said. “She actually called and hung up. The dispatchers were able to text her back and she was able to communicate with us through text and tell us what was going on. She couldn’t talk in front of the individual because they would know she was talking to the 911 center.”
In the past, Metro 911 might not have been able to help if the victim hung up and didn’t respond to calls back.
“We don’t know what would have happened,” Rutherford said. “We don’t know if someone would have got hurt. We don’t know if someone would have got killed.”
Metro 911 officials said it’s difficult to predict how many residents could benefit from the service.
“That’s the big what if,” McElhaney said. “We don’t know if there were calls out there we’ve never gotten.”
Metro 911 has been researching the service with encouragement from the county commission and Metro 911 board for the past five years.
The county commission provided $60,000 in funding for the technological improvements needed.
The center absorbed other costs when making equipment replacements over the past three years.
Metro 911 officials are urging residents to avoid texting while driving and using abbreviations when texting 911.
“We want simple messages,” Rutherford said. “It needs to be plain language.”
Metro 911 can not receive photos or videos through the service.
Reach Erin Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.