Umatilla County recently added a service that allows text messaging to 911 dispatch in an emergency.

According to an article in the East Oregonian, Umatilla County 911 Communication Center, Milton-Freewater Police Department Dispatch and John Day Emergency Communications Center announced last week that they were launching a “text to 911” service.

Despite the dispatch centers’ new abilities, Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Kathy Lieuallen said dispatchers still prefer the old method.

“We would rather talk to them than text,” she said.

In Union County, the dispatchers have the capability of doing the same thing in theory, but the state has to change some hardware to give them access, said Lola Lathrop, one of Union County’s dispatcher supervisors.

“If the county chooses to implement it, then you have to buy additional equipment,” Lathrop said. “Plus, we don’t have the real estate to put it on the console.”

Dispatchers can gather information more quickly by talking to someone over the phone, but texting might be the best option for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have speech disabilities, according to the East Oregonian story.

Texting might also be useful when someone is in an emergency situation where a voice call could put them in danger, such as a home invasion or domestic violence incident. Lieuallen said police in the Portland area have caught a few kidnappers when victims texted 911.

Toni Grove, a dispatcher in Union County, said she is aware of a deaf man in the county who says his address twice to the dispatchers when he calls 911, and they know to send a police officer to respond. Otherwise, the dispatchers said they haven’t seen a need for text to 911 service in Union County.

Lathrop said she would estimate the texting software would be used only once or twice a year in Union County. And there are ways the dispatchers can help callers who aren’t able to speak.

“If they can’t speak, then leave the line open,” Lathrop said. “We are able to pinpoint a location. If they’re calling from a cell phone, it’s harder to do — the call will ping from a tower and get an approximate location. If they’re calling from a landline, we’ll know exactly where they are.”

When Umatilla County residents send emergency texts, they will be sent an automated response asking if they can report that message through a voice call, according to the East Oregonian.

If they respond negatively, an employee from the dispatch center can respond with several automated responses or compose an original response. Lieuallen said the automated responses ensure information is exchanged faster so that emergencies are responded to more quickly.

She said text to 911 runs off a web-based program, which means the system goes offline if there’s an interruption in internet service. If the dispatch center’s texting capabilities are offline, citizens who try to use the service will be sent an automated response that will instruct them to call 911.

Lathrop said she’s heard that even in larger counties, dispatchers have not received many 911 texts. However, there has been positive results when the texts do come in.

“There were a lot of concerns when it was first implemented,” she said. “Those concerns haven’t panned out. It hasn’t been a bad thing that happened after all.”

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