DURHAM: Durham is national leader in texting to 911 - WRBL

Durham is national leader in texting to 911

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DURHAM, N.C. -

Texting is a 20-year-old technology; but when factoring in 911, it's the newest innovation in emergency response.

"We average one thousand 911 calls a day," said James Soukup, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center.

Being a dispatcher is a job where every second counts, and the more ways you can communicate with that operator increases the odds of lives being saved.

"It's here now, and it's up to the 911 centers to get the technology to be able to use it," Soukup said. "There are some rare circumstances that 911 texting is appropriate, but if you need it it’s there."

All four major cell phone carriers -- Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile -- have made texting to 911 available nationwide. Durham was the first city in North Carolina to test the technology, so it received the equipment for free.

And it has worked.

"We had a situation recently where someone witnessed drug activity and didn't want people to know that they were reporting that to us," Soukup said. "They [texted] us back and forth and we were able to send a law enforcement officer on it."

When you text to 911, your message is sent to the 911 center with about a 30-second delay. There, an operator is able to carry on a conversation through text. They type out a message on their computer that is then sent back to your phone.

Soukup said texting 911 can be used anytime talking would put you in danger. He said it's also great for the deaf or hearing impaired. It can also be helpful if a storm or major event blocks out cell service.

"If you try to dial 911, or anyone, you get a busy signal. But a text will go through," he said.

Other 911 centers in the state, however, haven't quite jumped on board. Only a handful of counties have the capability at all. In fact, Durham is the only county in the country that offers the service for Sprint, Verizon and AT&T users, with T-Mobile on the way.

For now, if a caller tries to text 911 in any county other than Durham, they will receive a text back telling them the service is unavailable and to call.

So why aren't other counties using it?

Barry Furey, director of the Wake County Emergency Communications Center, said the call center receives more than a million calls each year. But along with every other county in the state, Wake County hasn’t installed the technology.

Several counties told WNCN Investigates they hope to have the technology in place by the end of the year.

"It's something we're working diligently to get installed," Furey said. "We've had a lot of technical decisions to be made. There's just not a single solution to do it, so from our standpoint we want to make sure when we do it the first time we do it right because it’s such a critical part of public safety."

Both Soukup and Furey agree a real conversation is still your best option during an emergency.

"Calling is immediate. We can talk back and forth," Soukup said. "Where texting you have to type it, somebody has to read it and type back."

Furey added, "There's always something comforting about having a voice of a person on the other end."

Soukup said the Durham call center has only received about a dozen texts total since launching in 2011. He also said there are still some kinks to work out.

With a call, 911 operators can pinpoint exactly where the call is located. But so far with text, the operator can only get which cell tower the message came from.

Soukup said the call center is also working on its text system to begin accepting photo and video messages, which he said "could be very valuable."

You can read more about the FCC's involvement here.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

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