Inside the Hood County sheriff’s office, a text pops up in a window on the computer screen.
It is accompanied by a distinct alarm to let dispatcher Janet Vickers know that a 911 text message has arrived. This time, it was just a test sent by Sheriff Roger Deeds.
While still in its infancy, 911 text messaging — it’s officially called “text to 911” — is viewed as a benefit for deaf or hearing-impaired callers as well as victims in domestic violence, kidnapping, active shooter and severe weather situations.
Despite the popularity of text messaging, most people still prefer to call 911 in emergencies.
From Sept. 30, 2015, to Sept. 30 this year, Hood County received 24,395 911 calls compared with six text messages — three of them from the same person.
“There’s a lot of good applications for texting,” Deeds said. “Fortunately in Hood County we haven’t had to deal with them but we’re set up and ready to go.”
And there are still kinks to work out, Deeds said.
When Deeds texted his 911 test message from inside the sheriff’s office, the dispatcher’s screen showed his location as being more than a half-mile away from where he was standing.
Like Hood County, most North Texas counties have text-to-911 capabilities through the North Central Texas Council of Governments’s 911 system.
But there’s a glaring doughnut hole in the middle of that coverage. DFW’s two most populous counties, Tarrant and Dallas, are lagging far behind their suburban neighbors.
Concerns for call takers
In Tarrant County, text to 911 is still more than a year away.
A $19 million equipment and software upgrade to the 38 call centers and 12 backup centers that are part of the Tarrant County 9-1-1 District will bring text-to-911 capability to Tarrant County. The district includes all the major Tarrant County cities, plus Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Irving and Grand Prairie.
“We should be completed with that project by first quarter of ’18,” said Greg Petrey, executive director of the district. “We'll have the technological capability. Whether the individual agencies are ready to receive those we don't know that yet.”
Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd, chairman of the Tarrant 9-1-1 board, said he is worried that new technology could overload call takers.
“The early indications from those districts that have done it is the volume isn’t that high but I’m concerned that this may become a tipping point,” said Boyd, who is retiring at year’s end.
Boyd cited cellphone calls for car accidents as an example. In the old days, the agency would receive a handful of calls; now it can receive 50 if an accident occurs on a major freeway. If people start texting, that could overwhelm call takers.
Nationally, about 20 percent of U.S. counties have text-to-911 capability, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Seven states — New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Indiana and North Dakota — have statewide coverage.
Text to 911 is available in Houston and San Antonio, and authorities say they have seen the benefits. A hearing-impaired family was rescued from floodwaters in the Houston area by texting 911, and in San Antonio, a woman notified authorities by text when she was assaulted by her boyfriend.
‘No plans’ in place in Dallas
While a handful of cities in Dallas County have text to 911, the city of Dallas does not, and it has no timeline for adding it, officials said
Richardson has it, and five small Dallas County cities get text to 911 through the North Central Council of Governments Regional 911 program, which covers 44 call centers in 16 counties.
But neither Dallas nor the Dallas County sheriff has a firm timetable for providing the service.
“There have only been talks among Dallas Fire-Rescue officials regarding text to 911,” said Jason L. Evans, a spokesman for the Dallas-Fire Rescue Department. “However, at this point, there are no plans, in the near future, on implementing it.”
Dallas police didn’t return phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Unlike other counties, Dallas County has no countywide 911 network.
And Melinda Urbina, a spokeswoman for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, said the agency also remains in limbo. Its 911 system was upgraded two years to handle text to 911, but its vendor has yet to provide the software to receive and send texts.
“There is currently no timeline for receiving the software and beginning the text-to-911 program,” Urbina said. “We hope to do this in the near future.”
While Tarrant and Dallas counties wait, most of Collin County already has text to 911, as does almost all of Denton County — but not the portion in Fort Worth.
Mark Payne, executive director of Denco 9-1-1, said text to 911 is a “foundational piece” of the next wave of new technology.
“I think it’s probably logical that the next step would be multimedia messaging where someone who’s requesting help could send a photo of a suspect vehicle or building fire,” Payne said. “Right now, we don’t have that.”
Payne and other 911 call centers follow the mantra “call if you can, text if you can’t.”
Texting takes longer
While concerns remain about large population centers being overloaded with texts, that hasn’t happened yet.
But some areas are seeing texts take far more time to answer than phone calls.
“On average, we can handle a voice-to-911 call in 80 to 90 seconds versus text to 911, which average five to six minutes,” said Kathi Yost, director of communications for the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. “That’s a big change. It can tie up call takers.”
The Greater Harris County 9-1-1 Emergency Network is the largest system in the state, covering a population of 5.5 million in Harris and Fort Bend counties. The network averages about 360,000 calls and about 1,400 texts a month. Text to 911 arrived in Houston about two years ago.
So far, there have been enough call takers. Between the Sheriff’s Department and the city of Houston, more than 70 call takers work around the clock, providing backup to one another.
“It’s a concern but I think if we address it through public education that text to 911 is only for a life-or-death situation, I think we’ll be OK,” Yost said.
While domestic violence and kidnapping calls have been mentioned as large benefits in texting emergencies, the largest benefit may be for deaf and hearing-impaired residents.
“When we experienced the May floods of 2015, we had a family that was deaf or hard of hearing trapped in rising water,” Yost said. “We stayed on the phone with them for over 45 minutes until we were able to get rescuers to them. Their children, who were also deaf or hard of hearing, were in the vehicle with them.”
In San Antonio, a woman texted 911 in 2014 telling police her boyfriend had kidnapped her.
“If it wasn’t for the fact they could text, we might have had a different outcome,” said Eddie Taylor, director of 9-1-1 systems at Bexar Metro 9-1-1 Network.
The number of text-to-911 messages has been smaller in Bexar County. The San Antonio Police Department receives about 1.6 million 911 calls annually, compared with 1,789 texts.
“At this point, there has been a minimum impact to the call takers and it has been advantageous to the citizens,” Taylor said.
Text to 911
North Texas counties that have the service in some form.
Collin County (Not including Plano and Wylie.)
Denton County (Not including the part of Fort Worth in Denton County)
Dallas County (only Richardson, Wilmer, Cockrell Hill, Sachse, Seagoville and Balch Springs)
Ellis County (Not including Ennis)
Palo Pinto County