Emergency texting showcased

911 centers offer new option

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec During a demonstration at the Altoona 911 center, Shaun Magill takes a fabricated emergency text message from a Huntingdon dispatcher while local officials watch.

When it comes to contacting 911 centers in Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon and Fulton counties, texting is now an option.

Imagine being in an upstairs bedroom when someone is breaking into a house, Blair County Director of Public Safety Mark Taylor said Wednesday during a demonstration of the option. A cellphone user, Taylor said, could silently send a text message to the center and advise the dispatcher where to send help.

Commissioners and 911 personnel from the four counties met Wednesday at the Blair County 911 Center to watch a demonstration of the option that developed from a regional effort the counties initiated in 2014.

To show how the option works, Blair County 911 dispatcher Shaun Magill opened Huntingdon County’s emergency communications system on his computer, then received a fabricated text message from Huntingdon, advising him that the sender had fallen and needed help.

The text message arrived six seconds after it was transmitted, Huntingdon County 911 Coordinator Chris Stevens said.

Magill responded by text, asking for the sender’s location, which will be a common question for anyone trying to summon help by text.

A drawback to texting 911 is that the communications equipment cannot pinpoint the location of those sending text messages, said Sid McConahy of Mission Critical Partners, the Port Matilda public safety consulting company that’s been working with the counties on 911 center improvements.

Another drawback, McConahy said, is that text messages may not immediately go through.

“With using our own phones, we all know that sometimes, texting is instantaneous and sometimes, it’s not,” McConahy said.

But the option of texting 911 is viewed as a valuable service, Taylor said, especially for those who are deaf or have another medical impairment that may prevent them from making a phone call.

That was the case in January 2016, when a deaf woman in suburban Atlanta sent a text message to an emergency dispatcher, advising that she had seen two young children alone in a car outside a mall. A police officer responded and located their parents who thought that a 15-year-old was with the children.

The inability to text a 911 center was also recognized on the night of June 12, 2016, when a 29-year-old security guard killed 49 people and wounded others in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub. Orlando is among many locations throughout the country where it’s impossible to send a text message to a 911 dispatcher.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency indicates that text-ing a 911 center is now an option in 36 of 67 counties.

While some counties pursued the option on their own, Bedford County Emergency Services Director David Cubbison said the joint effort of Bedford, Blair, Huntingdon and Fulton counties sets an example for others to follow.

“This is an example of government that works and that works well,” Cubbison said.

By working together, the group was able to secure a $175,000 federal grant with help from the Southern Alleghenies Regional Planning and Development Commission to put toward the project. The rest of the expense associated with equipment improvements and upgrades was covered by an estimated $5 million in 911 surcharge fee revenue distributed to counties.

The project’s technological upgrades have also put the four counties in a position to serve as backup agencies for each other, McConahy said. If a disaster forces a county’s 911 center personnel to evacuate, he said, calls coming into that center can now be forwarded to another county.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

Advice on texting 911

– Call if you can; text if you can’t

– A text or data plan is required to place a text to a 911 center

– Texting 911 is not available when roaming nor in areas lacking service

– If texting 911 is not available or temporarily unavailable, the sender is to receive a response message advising use of another means to reach a 911 center

– When texting 911, use simple words and no abbreviations

– Keep text messages brief and concise

Source: National Emergency Numbering Association