Fla. text-to-911 emergency service shows promising start in the first year
Palm Beach County's 911 planning coordinator estimates that 18 public-safety call-center stations have received about 100 text messages each month
By Julius Whigham
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
PALM BEACH, Fla. — Hundreds of Palm Beach County residents have received help through the touch of a cellphone in the first year of the county's text-to-911 emergency service.
Since the program's inception in June 2018, county police agencies have responded about 25 times each month to emergencies they learn of through basic texts messages instead of telephone calls to 911, said Dan Koenig, Palm Beach County's 911 planning coordinator.
"Right now, it's been a very successful program," Koenig said.
Currently, 40 counties in Florida offer the service, with 13 others scheduled to install the service this year. All 67 counties are scheduled to have the service by the end of 2021.
Koenig referenced a case involving domestic violence as an example of how the texting emergency service has been used. However, the dispatch centers have not done any comparison breaking down the types of emergencies reported by text to those reported by telephone calls.
One of the biggest challenges since Palm Beach County launched the program has been educating the public on how to use — and how not to use — the text emergency service.
Koenig estimates that the county's 18 public-safety call-center stations have received about 100 text messages each month, with fewer than half involving actual emergencies. Some of the texts have been part of training exercises, while others have come from residents submitting crime tips. Some have used the service to report disputes with neighbors. Others have reported suspected drug dealers in their neighborhood, Koenig said.
"PBSO is getting the majority of them," Koenig said."(The senders) want to report something, but don't want to get involved. Yes, that is an emergency, something is going on. But they would be more (suitable) for Crime Stoppers."
He stressed that the text-to-911 service should be used for emergencies, or for situations where either someone cannot make a telephone call or where speaking over the phone could put the caller in danger. Dispatchers still prefer those needing emergency assistance to call the 911 service if possible, he said.
Koenig urged those who wish to submit tips to call their local law enforcement agency or Crime Stoppers of Palm Beach County. To call Crime Stoppers, dial 800-458-TIPS (8477). People also can email firstname.lastname@example.org or report the crime through the Crime Stoppers website.
Koenig also warned that similar to calls to the 911, sending prank messages to the service could result in criminal charges.
"We send texts back saying this is not proper use," he said. " 'Stop or we will proceed (with police action),' and that is usually enough to stop them."
However, many of the limitations that were in place when the system was launched remain the same. The system does not accept photographs, videos or emojis. Communications are limited to the English language, although authorities have said they hope that changes someday.
The county plans to have a similar arrangement with other neighboring counties when their texting services are activated in the next several months, Koenig said.
"If a call does cross the county line, with one transfer we can get to the right place," he said.
For those who use Palm Beach County's text-to-911 system:
- Dispatchers cannot determine a precise location from a text. Texters are asked to give dispatchers the address in question.
- The system cannot accept photos or videos, and using emojis in a message will disconnect communication with a dispatcher.
- Users also should not send group messages and are asked to avoid using slang or abbreviations that could cause confusion.
©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)