Last summer, two teens in Jonesboro, Arkansas, were home alone when burglars kicked in their door. The teens hid in a closet, and one of the girls texted a friend to call 911 for help.
If that scenario happened in Jonesboro today, the teen could have sent her text message directly to 911, because the northeast Arkansas town implemented texting services last month. Jonesboro is the first town in the region to add texting to its 911 service, but Shelby County is updating its equipment now to allow the texting service.
"In certain situations, it would be useful if you needed to silently send some type of emergency message," said Raymond Chiozza, director of the Shelby County Emergency Communications District.
Emergency communications centers across Tennessee are currently upgrading their equipment to handle text messages. Chiozza said the Shelby County district will spend the next year replacing equipment at the dispatch center to make it capable of connecting to a new state 911 network.
"It's still several years out before we can start receiving texts. If you text [Shelby County] 911 now, it will be rejected," Chiozza said.
Unlike Shelby County, which is waiting for the state 911 upgrade, Jonesboro's E-911 department didn't wait for the rest of Arkansas to catch up.
"We have tied into our local database at Jonesboro E-911, so if the number has ever been dialed into our system, we'll have some detailed information and we can do a cross-reference on the number," said Jeff Presley, Jonesboro's E-911 director. "We're not tied into the state database yet, because Arkansas won't allow us to do that."
The lack of state support means Jonesboro's new 911 texting service has limitations. The department doesn't receive the same detailed information, such as GPS coordinates, from a text as they'd get from a phone call. They also cannot receive photo or video messages yet.
To implement the new service, Jonesboro added a computer system, a 50-inch wall screen, and monitors dedicated to text messages. When someone sends an emergency text in Jonesboro, an operator texts the person back for more information.
"If someone is sending a text message, there's probably a good reason why," Presley said. "They can't talk because they are in danger, so we're not going to jeopardize their safety by trying to call them back."
In Shelby County, Chiozza said there's still plenty to do before the service can be implemented. Besides the technical aspects, Chiozza said 911 operators will need more training.
"The dispatchers and call takers will have to be trained on some of the common language used with texting. They'll have to be made aware of what someone is trying to say," Chiozza said.
In addition to allowing for text messages, the equipment upgrade under way in Shelby County will also allow dispatchers to transfer 911 calls anywhere in the state.
"It's also positioning us for picture and video messaging," Chiozza said. "[The upgrade] will open up a new arena of information that can be sent to the dispatch centers."