Indiana helps lead way in implementation of 911 texting

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All but four of Indiana's 92 counties have signed on a system that allows phone users to send a text to 911 when they need emergency help, putting the state at the forefront of a technology that's slowly making its way across the country.

Only Vermont and Maine have all counties accepting text messages to 911, the Palladium-Item reported. Fifteen other states have a few counties each that participate in the "Text to 911" system.

"It will eventually make it across the nation," said Matthew Cain, deputy director of Wayne County Emergency Communications, which volunteered to be one of five pilot counties to explore the texting option. "It's mainly geared toward the deaf community and the hard-of-hearing community, but it also benefits others when it's unsafe to call."

A federal order required all wireless carriers and text-messaging providers to allow users to send texts to local 911 dispatchers by the end of 2014.

In Indiana, only Lake, Jasper, Marion and Ripley counties have not accepted the system.

Cain said calling is still the best option for contacting 911 because communication is quicker between the dispatcher and the caller. But text messages are useful when a person has a hearing or speech impairment or when it's unsafe for a person to speak, such as in cases of an abduction or domestic situation.

"Voice is always best," Cain said. "Text is a last resort type of thing."

The texting service has limitations. It only works with Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint providers when the customer's contract includes text messaging. Prepaid phones and phones given out by the federal government don't work.

Cain said those who text to 911 must give an address because texting only narrows the location to a several-block radius.

Changes are in the works.

The Federal Communications Commission is requiring cellphone providers to work toward new guidelines that will give 911 a detailed location, Cain said. Eventually, 911 calls will show dispatchers the caller's exact location inside a building. Other plans could enable users to send photos and videos to 911.

"That's a few years down the line," Cain said, "but the possibilities are endless."

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