When the Virginia Tech tragedy happened, the people that gather together to do studies all gathered together and studied.  They reviewed witness statements, talked to people, they found out a lot of great information.  They found there was a major difference between this tragedy and tragedies similar that have happened in years previous. The major difference was the communication that happened – real time – over text and video messaging.  They text messaged friends, family, they send picture and video.  And… they texted 911.  The only problem with texting 911 there was that their telecommunications center wasn’t set up to receive 911 text messages.  They genuinely thought they were getting help. They didn’t realize that technology just isn’t there yet in their part of the country. Can you imagine?

I can.

The cool thing is that this technology is currently possible. Most places don’t have access to it yet because of budget reasons, system upgrades needed… in some rural areas they don’t even have wireless phase 2 capabilities.

Delaware is going to become (I believe) the first state to integrate texting statewide. Tennessee has some areas where you can text pictures to email addresses and forward it to Communications centers. LA and Boston have “Tip” hotlines where you can anonymously send tips about crimes (however, that’s not meant for in-progress events). Vermont is working to have text and picture message capability by 2010. And, oh, yes. It’s coming eventually to Texas too.

Those of you that know me personally know that I’m a big texter. I just recently upgraded to a blackberry which I love and my husband hates. Texting is how I keep in contact with friends and family. It’s how I meet new people (via Twitter). Texting and picture messaging lets me see my baby cousins and nephews in California much faster than them sending me pictures via the postal service. To say that texting is an integral part of my life would not be an exaggeration.

Those of you that know me personally also know I work for a local city and answer 911 calls, dispatch for the police and fire departments, and overall work daily to save the world. You know how much I love my job.

So please, don’t think I’m anti any of that when I say that I think the idea of text messaging 911 is a HORRIBLE idea.

I’ll give you 2 words to answer your “why?” and then I’ll explain: scene safety.

Scene safety is kind of like a buzz word for dispatchers. It’s something that we think about every time we answer the phone, and if we don’t, we should be. Is the scene safe for my first responders? Am I sending them somewhere that they can potentially be hurt?

Imagine for a minute some of the text messages that you get.  No emotion. No voice inflexion.  Now, imagine getting text messages from people who are frantic and upset and asking for help. Realistically – are they going to be helpful?

Lets say I get a text message from a citizen. It says “Help, my husband is threatening to kill me!!

Ok. What do you think?

Obviously he’s not trying to do it right then, because it’s kind of hard to text while being strangled.  But what does the text message really mean?  It could be referring to an offhand threat that he made.  It could be a drunk husband with a history of violence yelling it.  It could be an angry man who just left the room with a gun in his hand. 

None of those are situations I want to send my first responders into without a clear picture of what they area dealing with. 

The exclamation points make you think it’s urgent, but then I get a lot of urgent callers that are reporting a “vicious dog.”  Part of my job is to listen to what the callers are REALLY saying, not just how frantic or upset they are.  Sometimes a vicious dog is a big deal, but most of the time it’s not.  When people flip out about “vicious dogs” – that are really just pit bull puppies excited to be running around – I have to see through their excitement to see that it’s not really an emergency. I do that by talking to them, having conversation, interacting with them. I won’t be able to do that nearly as well over text messages.  

Not to mention, we generally ask several questions. Is anyone intoxicated? Are there any weapons? Is there any prior history?  That information would be difficult to receive in a timely manner of text messages.  When I’m on the phone with someone and they are slurring their speech saying they’re NOT intoxicated… I know they’re lying. If I get a text message with a misspelled word, do I assume they’re intoxicated or do I assume they’re freaked out and typing fast?  There is too many ways this won’t work.

Text messages make people brave.  Maybe even brave enough to send joke messages.  They’re easier to fake. Which means more prank calls.

We can spend all the money in the world on technology to make 911 better. Or, we can spend a little bit of money on advertising and education about proper ways to use 911.  I’m all for technology.  I’m all for web2.0. I’m all for making myself accessible to people in need of help. 

But not at the sake of my officers safety. Not if it means not having the knowledge I need, when I need it, to keep people safe. I don’t know if I can send officers into a situation with only 160 characters worth of information.