Alameda County, first county to adopt new technology to text 911

Jamie DaSilva,

Texting has become the norm of communication in recent years, so much that most people would choose texting over calling easily. It was only a matter time before government agencies hopped on the texting train too.

On Feb. 5, Alameda County became the second county in California to debut their newest technology, the ability to text 911 for help. The use of texting can connect dispatchers with residents in need of help when calling is not an option.

In August 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted rules for 911 capabilities to become widespread by providing a timetable for text messaging providers to support texting to 911. The FCC mandated that public safety dispatchers roll out phase one by December 2018. The new technology was assisted by both internal IT and a third party company.

The Alameda Police Department has been working for the past year on the go-live process to integrate into mainstream use. Where California’s 911 Communication Branch Centers tested three forms of text to 911 that eventually will be made available to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP). After the testing process, Alameda County decided to go with a web based option for their Text to 911 system.

Additionally, the system is comprised of two components, a text control center, Comtech and Alameda County IT Department. Which worked closely together to enable gateways and firewalls to grant Alameda County Dispatch the ability to receive text messages from their PSAP.

“The goal of the new technology was to become another tool in the tool box of emergency reporting,” said Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

According to an article from Bay Area ABC 7 news, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch Center receives approximately 4,000 911 calls every month. On average a person sends about 109 text a day, according to PEW research, so it makes sense for the next generation of emergency needs to include text messaging as an option to alert authorities.

The new technology has the ability help residents in emergency situations and is most beneficial for residents who have disabilities such as hearing or speech impairments that have difficulties calling the 911 centers for assistance. In addition, it will allow residents who are in dangerous situations such as home invasions, domestic abuse and violent altercations where it’s hard to alert law enforcement.

But like any new innovations in its first phase, it is not quite perfected yet. Kelly discusses the capabilities such as, being able to text a dispatcher where the dispatcher can use a variety of text questions to gain more information on your location and current situation. One drawback, however, is that it does not have GPS capabilities and therefore a dispatcher has to ask for the address and location, which can take up more time.

Text messages can be filtered to different agencies depending on your location. For example, if you if you text near a highway the text will be routed to the CHP and then they have to send it to the corresponding police department.

In the second phase these issues will be addressed and rectified, and become statewide by the end of 2018. The future of this system will be able to accept video and pictures from users. As of Feb. 11, Hayward is now the second city in Alameda County to offer text 911.

“We have only had a few texts so far, but do not expect a huge amount per month, but expect five text messages per month,” said Kelly. ”Text 911 is here to stay and will soon become the new normal.”