The text message has become one of the most vital versatile means of communication in a world saturated with ways to communicate. People use text messaging for everything from connecting with their loved ones to accessing their online banking.
And, starting this spring, Woodburn-area residents will even be able to text 911.
Thats because METCOM, the Woodburn-based agency responsible for receiving emergency calls and dispatching first responders throughout Marion County (except in Salem and Keizer), is launching a pilot program this year that will bring text-to-911 capability to Oregon for the very first time.
Though the service is new to Oregon, text-to-911 is already available in 20 or so other states, according to METCOM Director Gina Audritsh. One of the more recent states to roll out the capability was Washington, which prompted emergency call centers in the Portland metro area to take a hard look at the issue.
There are a lot of people in the Portland area who commute to and from Washington, and there were concerns about people not recognizing where the text-to-911 stops, Audritsh said.
Audritsh said the states ultimate goal is a comprehensive, Internet-based system called NextGen 911, which could incorporate not just the ability to send texts but also photos, video and GPS information to 911. However, infrastructure cannot currently support the implementation of NG911 statewide, and Audritsh estimated it will take another seven to 10 years to secure enough funding to make the necessary upgrades.
A consortium of dispatch centers, based primarily in and around Portland but also including METCOM, decided it did not want to wait that long to at least enable text-to-911, so it began working on a three-year pilot project with a Web-based program through the third-party vendor TeleCommunication Systems Inc., for which the state agreed to reimburse the approximately $40,000 cost.
No additional taxes or fees will be raised for the service. Instead, the funds are coming from a 75 cent surcharge mobile phone users already pay.
Audritsh stressed that METCOM, and the other emergency call and dispatch agencies participating in the pilot, do not intend for text-to-911 to be seen as any kind of replacement or substitute for actually calling the same number.
Voice communication is still the most effective communication, especially in an emergency situation, she said. The message we want to put out there is, Call if you can. Text if you cant.
Though phone calls will still be preferred by dispatchers, Audritsh said the move to accommodate text messaging will benefit certain populations like non-native English speakers and those hard of hearing both of which are more prevalent in the Woodburn area than the state in general.
Audritsh said the service will also help those in rural or remote areas, where poor cellphone service wouldnt support a call but may allow a text to go through. Finally, there are some emergency situations where a 911 users might be unable to speak because of safety concerns, such as during a home invasion, active shooter or domestic violence situation.
Still, the form of communication has limits. For one thing, it may take longer for a dispatcher to communicate vital information. The current technology also offers no way to identify a persons location from a text, so Audritsh said it is important for anyone using the service to share their location information up front, along with the nature of the emergency.
Audritsh said METCOM did not want to wait for the state to implement NextGen, because officials know users in and around Woodburn are already trying to text 911. Not only that, she said a recent survey in the Portland metro area suggested that 12.5 percent of residents thought text-to-911 service was already available here.
We know there are subscribers who are trying to text 911 and its not going through, she said.