Designed for special emergencies, texting 911 widely misused

The majority of texts dispatchers receive are better handled by calling, a SNOPAC official says.

“Call if you can; text if you can’t,” says SNOPAC.

“Call if you can; text if you can’t,” says SNOPAC.

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Hundreds of people have texted to 911 in Snohomish County since the service rolled out two years ago. But most of them aren’t using the system as designed.

Earlier this month, a woman wasn’t able to leave a domestic-violence situation. She couldn’t call for help either, as her fiance was in the room, said Kurt Mills, executive director of SNOPAC, a dispatch center based in Everett. She texted 911 and police were soon on their way.

The texting service was designed for those situations, when calling could be unsafe.

However, nearly 94 percent of the emergencies reported last year could have been communicated over the phone, officials said. It’s quicker for dispatchers to process a call than a text.

“Call if you can; text if you can’t,” Mills said.

Snohomish County was the second county in Washington to implement this technology. In addition to providing an alternative when calling is unsafe, people living with a hearing or speech disability also can text to report an emergency.

A few months ago, a man heard gunshots outside and decided to go see what happened, said Terry Peterson, executive director of SNOCOM, a Mountlake Terrace dispatch center. The man’s wife, who could not hear, sent a text alerting 911 of the gunfire.

The dispatch centers serving the county have monitored texts they have received so far. They categorized the messages based on whether they were deemed an appropriate use of the service.

They received 990 texts between September 2016 and June. Nearly 930 of them were determined to be not appropriate for the service. Many were about accidents and messages relaying traffic or noise complaints.

The technology is still new.

Only 11 of Washington’s 39 counties have upgraded their 911 systems to accept text messages. Others are in the progress of doing so.

“It’s new technology that’s evolving pretty quickly,” Mills said. “We thought it was important enough to implement early on.”

Eventually, he believes dispatchers will be able to accept photos and videos that can be shared with police. Though it could be awhile.

They also hope to better accommodate a variety of languages. As of now, the service is only available in English. Messages in other languages may be returned to the sender, or if they do come through, certain characters might be missing.

“That type of technology is not available yet for texts to 911,” Peterson said.

However, interpreters are available to anyone who calls 911.

Caitlin Tompkins: 425-339-3192;

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