Montco launches ‘text-to-911’ service

     A call center operator monitors screens at Montgomery County Emergency Services Center, which now include text messages to 911. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    A call center operator monitors screens at Montgomery County Emergency Services Center, which now include text messages to 911. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Riding a national wave, Montgomery County now offers to people in trouble the ability to text 911 dispatchers.

    While anyone can use the service, officials said the intent is to help people who can’t — or shouldn’t — talk on the phone during an emergency. This could be someone with a disability, or someone facing domestic violence, home invasion or kidnapping.

    Service providers in the domestic violence prevention community praised the county’s actions. Mary Onama, executive director of the Victims Services Center of Montgomery County, said she is “proud” and “excited” the county has made text-to-911 available.

    “As someone who’s done hotline crisis counseling, I’ve been on that call where the person calling in is in crisis and we say, ‘Is the offender there?’,” said Maria Macaluso, executive director of the Women’s Center of Montgomery County.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Onama said many of her clients, too, find themselves in situations where drawing attention to their cry for help could spawn violence. “Texting increases safety,” she said.

    The Montgomery County program was slated to roll out in May, but county officials said they spent a couple extra months testing the system.

    “There’s no reason to put a system out there that wasn’t ready for prime time,” said James Wilson deputy director of emergency management.

    The program cost the county $39,450 up front, requiring an additional $15,000 for maintenance each year over the next five years. County Commissioner Josh Shapiro said the whole program — which will total $114,450 — is covered by a 911 fee each wireless customer already pays as a part of their service.

    County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said operators still prefer that people call 911, as it can get more information across more quickly.

    “The message for the people in the county is they should absolutely call if they can, and text if they must,” she said.

    All major cell phone carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) support the service.

    As of the launch date, Montgomery County officials said they’d received exactly one text to 911. Protocols are still being worked out, such as what to do when someone texts 911 but stops responding to dispatcher’s questions. Wilson said, for now, dispatchers will not attempt to call someone who has stopped texting, in case that would put the person in danger.

    The nature of new text-to-911 technology also poses some potential problems. Pinpointing a caller’s location is less precise with a text than with a cell phone or landline call, and typing out all the relevant information to a dispatcher takes time, with some carriers imposing an additional lag.

    “This is an emerging technology,” said Wilson. “We’re on the cutting edge. So there’s going to be a lot of tweaks in the coming months.”

    Chester County launched its own text-to-911 capacity in April, while Bucks and Delaware counties have programs in development.


    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal