In Pasco County, help during an emergency is now just a phone call — or a text message — away.
Last month, the county’s Department of Emergency Services launched its “Text-to-911” system.
Text-to-911 provides an alternative — and may be especially helpful to those who are hearing impaired and those involved in a hostage or domestic violence situation.
Pasco County is now one of 33 counties in Florida that offer the service to residents. More counties are expected to join, when it eventually becomes state law.
“There is legislation that is going to make it a mandatory thing by a certain point,” explained Capt. Dan Olds, director of Emergency Services in Pasco County.
While the new option is seen as an asset, law enforcement still encourages the public to call 911, if possible. In essence, they say, call if you can, text if you can’t.
With telephone calls, 911 dispatchers are better able to assess a situation with any background noise, Olds said.
Those texting a call center are asked to deliver “clear, short, concise messages,” Olds said.
Be direct, he advised. Do not use emojis, abbreviations, acronyms or slang, he added.
Olds also noted that photos and videos cannot be sent through to dispatchers.
The service may be offered under an individual’s phone carrier, but authorities still encourage texters to contact their provider to inquire about their data plan.
To reduce delays, dispatchers already have a pre-typed response to a texter’s initial message — which asks about their state of emergency.
Glenda Harris is the operations manager for Pasco’s Department of Emergency Services.
From its beginning stages, Harris has been working with county officials, including Olds, to make sure the service benefits the public.
“As soon as you dial 911, we have a good idea (within) several hundred yards of where you are,” she said, through GPS. In certain subdivisions, she said, the call can be pinpointed to the specific area of a home where the text came from.
The department runs practice drills to ensure that texts are being traced efficiently.
Pasco County’s dispatchers are cross-trained in handling multiple situations whether it involves a fire department, hospital or police station.
With an average of 600 emergency calls coming in each day, time is of the essence.
The dispatchers have direct lines of communication to facilities — which avoids the need of transferring calls, thereby reducing delays.
Within minutes of receiving a text, they can send out an ambulance while keeping the caller occupied.
What’s more, each dispatcher is equipped to handle three incoming texts at a time.
Once texted, their screen will show the phone carrier of the person, plus a general vicinity of the person’s location.
Dispatchers will still ask the location of the texter, to make sure they have the precise information needed.
The system will automatically disconnect after there has been 20 minutes of no communication, but can be resumed with just another text.
Text-to-911 was first launched in 2014 using four major phone providers – Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
It initially began in several counties in at least 12 states and has gradually expanded across the country.
Since the service was implemented in Pasco County, its call center has seen less than 100 emergency texts in the span of a month.
Harris attributes this to the strong emphasis on using phone calls as a first priority when necessary.
Despite its preference for those with emergencies to call 911, the county hopes that adding the texting option will increase the safety of its residents.
Published January 9, 2019