Today, if East Baton Rouge Parish residents send a text message to 911, they’ll receive a “bounce-back” response instructing them to call 911.
By May, emergency response officials hope to change that by having dispatchers respond to text messages just as they would any other emergency call.
“It’s a great alternative in situations where people only have that avenue to get in touch with emergency services,” said Matt Hobson, East Baton Rouge Parish Communications District Manager, adding, “We’re looking forward to getting it in place.”
The move is part of a broader push by the parish’s emergency responders to enhance and modernize the technology it employs to help people during local emergencies.
The effort includes construction of a state-of-the-art new Emergency Medical Services headquarters on Harding Boulevard. Parish officials gathered Thursday to officially celebrate the opening of the three-month-old, 30,000 square foot facility.
The $9 million building, which EMS paid for with savings accumulated over the past 15 years, features an educational training center, electronically monitored utilities and spiffy LED, motion-sensing light fixtures, said Chad Guillot, the parish’s EMS director.
EMS trucks, too, have gone digital, Guillot said.
“There’s at least three laptops in every ambulance,” Guillot said, which first-responders use for tasks ranging from pinpointing distress call locations to processing electrocardiograms, or EKGs, quicker.
Despite the technological advancements, EMS is still months away from implementing emergency text messaging services.
Hobson, who oversees the 911 call center’s operations, said technical issues yet to be resolved with cell phone carriers are holding back the testing phase.
Only a handful of cities and counties nationwide currently have access to “Text-to-911,” which began several years ago as a voluntary agreement between the country’s four largest wireless telephone companies — Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — and the National Emergency Numbers Association as an effort to make texting 911 a reality nationwide by May 15, 2014.
According to each company’s most recent quarterly progress report, the service isn’t yet available anywhere in Louisiana.
In places already equipped with the service, though, such as Durham County, North Carolina, and Oneida County, New York, “Text-to-911” has been a success, said Trey Forgerty, the National Emergency Number Association’s director of government affairs.
“In some cases, text calls have actually proven easier to handle because of more advanced software,” Forgerty said, adding that most call centers have not been inundated with false emergencies via text.
Specifically, the service is a critical improvement upon traditional phone calls for people with hearing or speech disabilities and people who might get themselves hurt by speaking out loud, such as in home invasions, Forgerty said.
While texting 911 is clearly advantageous in such cases, Forgerty still recommends picking up the phone and dialing 911 in most emergency situations.
“Call if you can, text only if you can’t,” he said.