Fairfax County police implement new 9-1-1 texting program

(Photo credit: Claire Cecil/Fourth Estate)

“Call if you can. Text if you can’t.”

Police departments in Fairfax County, the Town of Herndon, the Town of Vienna, the Town of Clifton and the City of Fairfax have implemented a Text to 9-1-1 program that allows those in emergency situations to send text messages to police dispatchers.

The Fairfax County Department of Public Safety Communications started accepting texts on September 22 of this year. With the catch phrase “Call if you can. Text if you can’t,” the police departments are still emphasizing the importance of voice calling to contact the emergency dispatchers. Those that need help should only text 9-1-1 if they have a hearing or speech disability, if it is not safe to place a voice call, if a medical emergency prevents them from speaking or if there is limited network connectivity.

“When talking about planning about Next Generation 9-1-1, sort of a first step towards providing some new capabilities would be to text 9-1-1,” said Steve McMurrer, Fairfax County 9-1-1 system administrator.

Next Generation 9-1-1 is a proposal spearheaded by the National 911 Office that aims to simplify and speed up communication between the public and emergency responders, according to the National 911 Office’s website.

“It [Text to 9-1-1] became important to implement because we were doing it in a coordinated regional effort. We [Fairfax] were the ones who took the initiative to put it in place first,” McMurrer said.

George Mason University is within the boundaries of Fairfax County, and texts to 9-1-1 will go to the Fairfax County Police Department, according to McMurrer. Jamie Smith, a criminology, law, and society major at Mason thinks the program will be very useful to students in need.

“As a college student myself I think that I would be less hesitant to contact emergency services if I could text them,” she said.  “For some reason I feel like there would be less pressure, after all, most people my age text more than call so I believe being able to text 9-1-1 may bring us back into a comfort zone.”

So far, the program is only available with T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and AT&T wireless carriers. The Text to 9-1-1 program does not accommodate videos or images and users are encouraged to provide details of the incident in clear English. Emergency dispatchers will follow up the initial contact for additional details.

Although the program has only been in place for less than two months, the dispatchers have received approximately one hundred texts to 9-1-1, according to McMurrer.

“Out of the 100 calls, 25 of them resulted in a dispatch. There were some legitimate things that people were texting for, and then there were certain number of other ones that were accidental, just like you can make what we call a ‘butt dial’,” McMurrer said.

Smith agreed that text capabilities may result in some accidental text messages.

“I can see some college students [texting] 9-1-1 while intoxicated but there may not be a real emergency,” she said.

The Text to 9-1-1 program is a regional effort, McMurrer said, but right now the only other county in Northern Virginia that has a 9-1-1 text program is Frederick County, according to a map on the Fairfax County website. However, according to the Federal Communications Commission, almost 400 police departments around the country have implemented such a program.

“It is implemented in a number of different pockets around the U.S.,” McMurrer said. “There are some states that are sparely populated that they have the capability to text to 9-1-1 anywhere in the state. Like the state of Vermont…but they probably have half the population of Fairfax County.”

Saira Sohail, a Mason alumna and Fairfax County resident, said that she feels much safer with the texting program.

“Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it but I can imagine a lot scenarios, for me personally, where it may not be easy to make a call to the police and texting can come in handy,” she said. “I also think this is a great and common-sense way to take advantage of the technology we have and I can’t see why other counties wouldn’t also want to implement it.”

Moving forward, McMurrer said he hopes to see carriers become compatible with multimedia messaging so that users can send in pictures and videos with captions. Right now, only one of the four wireless carriers is compatible with multimedia messaging for Text to 9-1-1.