A system that enables residents to text 911 from their mobile phones in an emergency was rolled out this week across Orange County.
The Text to 911 service, which launched Wednesday, can be initiated like any other direct text message by typing “911” into the recipient field. The user then types a message that will be seen by a dispatcher. The dispatcher can text back for more information.
More than 1.24 million emergency calls were made last year in Orange County, the county Sheriff’s Department said. Eighty percent of them were from mobile phones.
“From Huntington Beach’s perspective, it’s useful,” Police Chief Robert Handy said, noting that it gives people with speech and hearing difficulties a way to contact emergency services without relying on an interpreter or a TTY device.
“We are excited to give them a tool to connect directly with us,” Handy said. “We think we can better serve our hearing-impaired community.”
The Sheriff’s Department cautioned that Text to 911 can’t be used in a group text (with multiple recipients) — the message won’t reach dispatchers. Also, photos and videos won’t go through.
Despite the new option, calling is still the best way to report a crime or request emergency services, according to law enforcement. Voice conversation is more efficient and provides more context for emergency dispatchers, officials said.
“They are gathering necessary information for officers’ safety and to deploy the appropriate resources,” said Tina Blum, Fountain Valley police support services supervisor. “You can assess the situation quicker.”
“Dispatchers ask a lot of questions,” Handy said.
During a call, they also can detect inflections in a voice indicating urgency and emotion, or hear noises that can tell them about the surroundings. They may notice behavior that signals the caller can’t speak freely.
“We get a better idea of what’s happening as opposed to words on a screen,” Handy said.
Nonetheless, texting provides another avenue to request emergency services, and the easier, more discrete reporting may encourage residents to seek help sooner when they experience or witness a crime, officials said.
“Plenty of people will call after the fact,” which doesn’t give police the opportunity to intervene, Blum said.
“I think there are plenty of times when people want to call the police when they see something going on, but they don’t want to be seen calling the police,” Handy said.
He used domestic disputes as an example. “If the spouse or offender is still in the house, [a victim or witness] can shoot a quick text and not get on the phone,” Handy said.
Could the system be abused? Maybe.
“Some people will goof around with it and misuse it,” Blum said. “I think there might be some temptation early on.”
However, using 911 for non-emergency needs is a crime — whether by voice or text — and is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or a year in jail.