Emergency 911 texting service being tested in Snohomish County

EVERETT — Emergency dispatchers in Snohomish County are testing the ability to receive text messages to 911.

The service could be live here by 2016. If that happens, Snohomish County would be the second county in the state to adopt the technology.

Texting 911 is not meant to replace a traditional emergency call. Instead, it’s aimed at people with disabilities and situations where dialing the phone would put the caller in danger, such as during a shooting.

When the service launches, the message will be, “Call if you can. Text if you can’t. Voice is always the preferred method,” said Laura Caster, a county 911 coordinator.

For now, a text to 911 will result in a bounce-back message notifying the person it didn’t go through.

More than 8,700 failed texts to 911 were reported in Washington last year, according to SNOCOM, the dispatch center based in Mountlake Terrace. Those numbers show that people are trying to connect via text, Caster said.

“That’s obviously important to us,” she said. SNOCOM has finished testing with two of the four major wireless carriers, Executive Director Debbie Grady said. The other two carriers are scheduled this month.

One round of testing involved a deaf volunteer at the Madrona school in the Edmonds School District.

“We were trying to determine what the texts would look like and what the communication string would look like, to see how the flow of information went,” Grady said.

Local dispatch centers have been working with their counterparts around the state and the country. CenCom, the dispatch center serving Kitsap County, publicly launched 911 texting March 30, Executive Director Richard Kirton said.

So far, CenCom has received more than a dozen requests for emergency help via text, he said. Of those, one proved to be a real emergency where the victim could not safely make a phone call.

“It’s been a pretty smooth deployment,” he said.

In addition to Snohomish County, Island, King and Skagit counties are talking about adding the service.

Those conversations involve limitations, though. For example, it’s likely 911 wouldn’t have technology to quickly and accurately translate texts in other languages, and wouldn’t be able to receive multimedia messages, such as pictures. As with cell phone calls, texts provide limited information about the person’s location.

Earlier this year, representatives from SNOPAC, the dispatch center based in Everett, traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby in support of legislation that would provide more cellphone location to 911. That includes location information for text messages, SNOPAC Director Kurt Mills said.

The Washington State Patrol’s dispatch center in Marysville has been helping with the testing but isn’t part of the roll-out, officials said. At least two other police departments in the county — Tulalip and Bothell — run their own dispatch centers.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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