King County launches text to 911 service

The service will help the hearing impaired and those experiencing domestic violence.

Emergency responders in King County can now respond to texts for assistance — a technology that could help people who are hard of hearing or experiencing domestic violence.

Text to 911 services were started in the county on Dec. 20, both inside cities and in unincorporated areas. While the county has a preference for phone calls to 911, text is also available and was designed to help those with hearing impairments or when it is unsafe to call. Texts to 911 are treated like other texts and may be somewhat delayed. It can take more time for an operator to respond to texts. The service only works in English and it does not receive photos or videos.

The location of the emergency along with the city should be included in the first text, as well as whether the texter is requesting police, fire, or medical assistance. Texters should be prepared to answer more questions. During a demonstration on Dec. 20, the operators would generally follow up and ask the texters whether they could make a call before dispatching emergency responders.

The service is not available statewide, but Snohomish County launched a similar service in 2015 that has helped more than 220 people since its inception. Kitsap and Thurston counties also provide the service, and Pierce County is expected to come online next year.

Jim House, a representative for the deaf and hard of hearing, participated in the demonstration, texting the operator who handled his text. Having services like text to 911 is an important step forward for people who cannot easily use a phone to make calls, he said.

“For deaf and hard of hearing people, technology was not designed for us,” he said through a translator. “It was pretty difficult because in the past, before texting, we would rely on a relay service.”

Prior to the county rolling out its new service, deaf residents often had to text to a third-party relay service that would in turn contact emergency services. This allows people like House to communicate directly with an operator. House said the ultimate goal would be a next-generation 911 service that will allow people to sign directly to operators using video.

“That would be a big plus for the service,” he said.

According to the Associated Press, around 80 percent of U.S. 911 calls are made from cellphones for an emergency response system that was designed for landlines. There is no national requirement for call centers to provide 911 text support, but if an emergency call center requests it, then mobile service providers must provide it within six months. The first text to 911 request was sent in 2009 in Iowa.

King County’s text to 911 service is funded by the 911 excise tax, which is already included in phone bills, and the system that is being used in its call centers is the same that is used to answer emergency phone calls. Infrastructure and system upgrades for the new text service have cost the county roughly $500,000, according to the King County E-911 Program Office.

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