People in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington have or will soon have a new option to call for help in an emergency. People in those areas can now text 911.
A group of eight 911 agencies unveiled the texting program Tuesday, with a few important caveats: Don’t send emojis. Or pictures. Or video. Including any of those in a text to 911 corrupts the entire message.
OPB’s Kate Davidson spoke with Cheryl Bledsoe, the communications manager for Clackamas County 911 to learn more.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q&A with Cheryl Bledsoe
Kate Davidson: Where in Oregon and Washington can people now send a text to 911 in an emergency?
Cheryl Bledsoe: You can essentially send a text message anywhere from Mount Hood on the east side out to the Oregon Coast and through the Portland metropolitan area. So that includes Clatsop, Columbia, Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas and Marion counties and Clark County, Washington.
Davidson: I've called 911 before and I'm struck by how quickly the operator asks very key questions to get information in a way, I imagine, is faster than texting. In what situations do you see texting 911 to be the better option?
Bledsoe: There's two basic situations. One is where your voice might be the hazard. Those might be situations where if you talk you might put yourself in more danger. Examples of that might be an intruder in your house, or if you're in a large shopping mall environment and something bad is going on around you, or a place where you're observing some behavior, maybe you're a passenger in the a vehicle where someone's intoxicated or someone is in a domestic violence situation and is involved in a fight around you and you don't want to tell them you're calling 911.
The second situation is where you can't use your voice and that might be if you're deaf and/or hard of hearing or simply have a speech impediment issue where you can't use your speech very effectively to talk to 911.
Davidson: What are some of the drawbacks to texting 911?
Bledsoe: One of the big drawbacks for us is that the public cannot send us multimedia messages. Those include emojis, pictures and video images. And so it's important if folks are sending us information, they have to use the letters and traditional keyboard lettering and punctuation. We want full words, but we want to make sure that if folks typically put emojis in their conversation that they not do that for 911, because that actually corrupts the whole message and we will not receive any part of the message that they might be intending to send us.
Davidson: But sometimes you call 911 in a life or death situation. Do you think that people really would be texting emojis?
Bledsoe: Well, hopefully not. But there's a big variety of emoji keyboards in this day and age and so sometimes people might, with language barriers or translation issues, think that they can translate or give us information where they might not know the word for it. That might be a situation where someone might try to use an emoji and try to communicate information to us. But it doesn't work, unfortunately, yet, in the 911 sector.
Davidson: And it can corrupt your message?
Bledsoe: Right, so we essentially don't get the message at all. So if someone says "help" or "I need help" and then sends us an unhappy face, we won't even see the "I need help."
Davidson: What are some of the other drawbacks?
Bledsoe: Two other big drawbacks are simply the reliability of text messaging. As all of us know who text on a regular basis, sometimes messages don't go through, and that's not a 911 problem but more of a phone carrier problem or translation of the message if they're roaming out of an area.
And the second issue for us, of more concern, is location accuracy. The way we get location information on a text is on a very rough centroid of a cell tower. So it essentially triangulates where your phone is and where the cell tower is and gives us an approximate location. And in our testing we found that can be anywhere from a couple of blocks off, up to even 10 miles off in some of the rural areas. So it's really important that folks are location aware and are paying attention to their surroundings so they can give us as much detail as possible.
Davidson: Who is paying for the texting to 911 program?
Bledsoe: Text to 911 comes out of the 911 tax that is on wireless, wire line phones and voice-over-internet phones. So consumers pay a 75-cent tax per month in the state of Oregon for 911 services and those funds come to the local 911 agency. Not all of those funds cover all of the needs of the 911 centers, but it does fund about 20 percent of our budget towards those services. And then the rest of our services are typically paid by our user agencies — our police, fire and ambulance services that work with us. The consumers, for the most part, are seeing it from the 911 tax bill and it's relatively inexpensive. The cost actually for all of the agencies that have gone forward with this program has been under $50,000 for the year for all of the centers who just recently adopted.