Oakland County rolls out system to respond to 911 texts

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Citizens can now text in an emergency call for help to the Oakland County Sheriff's Office rather than wait to speak with a 911 dispatch operator.

The program, developed in recent weeks, is expected to help in emergency situations where people either are unable to speak to a 911 operator or for some reason are afraid the sound of their voice might make them an immediate target.

"Calling and talking with a dispatcher is still the best method for a number of reasons but that's not always an option," said Sheriff Michael J. Bouchard, whose goal has been to ensure equal access to 911 services for the hearing and speech impaired.

Texting

Sheriff's dispatchers handle about a half-million 911 calls annually and 84 percent are from cellphones, Bouchard said.

So far, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint customers can text to 911. The service works like any text conversation, with the 911 operator using a web browser to respond within seconds.

The service has come in handy twice in the past month, Bouchard said. A woman in Southfield texted a 911 call after her ex-husband slapped her cellphone away from her and she was fearful of violence and a Pontiac woman alone and hiding in her home texted in a call after hearing someone breaking in.

Jim and Marnie Harris of White Lake Township were split on their opinions of 911 texting in emergencies.

"I think there is too much texting going on now," said James Harris. "Maybe I'm old fashioned but it is better to talk to someone on the other line if they have questions."

Marnie Harris thought there could be situations 911 texting would be "a good thing" and "could have benefits" when someone was unable to talk.

Bouchard noted dispatchers still need valuable information, most importantly a person's location, since texting cannot accurately identify where someone is.

Eleanor Warren of Brighton, who works in Oakland County, said she had reservations. "I think something like that might be open to abuse," she said. "Even if they know who is transmitting something, has that ever stopped some teenager from doing something dumb?"

Farmington Hills police said if a resident texts the sheriff's department a 911 operator has to phone the Farmington Hills police, possibly causing delays.

"Texting should only be used when the caller cannot safely speak, or cannot hear or speak for physiological or other reasons," Farmington Hills police advised.