Jefferson Parish residents can now text 911 emergencies to the Sheriff's Office _lowres

 

Some Baton Rouge-area residents soon will be able to seek help in an emergency with a text message, rather than having to speak directly with a 911 dispatcher.

East Baton Rouge and West Baton Rouge parishes call centers are still working out the kinks in their text messaging systems, but officials hope to launch new texting networks by Aug. 1.

The upgrades come as texting becomes a go-to mode of communication for a growing number of people and as emergency call centers across the country roll out text-to-911 services.

“It’s a real benefit for the hearing-impaired and people in emergency situations where they’re not able to talk,” said Matt Hobson, East Baton Rouge Parish communications district manager. “We’re looking forward to it.”

The federal government last year set a Jan. 1 deadline for all cellphone carriers to support texting to 911 dispatchers. The Federal Communications Commission, however, does not require emergency call centers to accept texts, which can require costly upgrades. That’s created a patchy network of text-friendly areas.

Nationwide, about 200 dispatch centers in 18 states — 2 to 3 percent of the thousands of such centers in the U.S. — offer the service, according to the FCC.

In the Baton Rouge metro area, four of the six parish 911 districts surveyed said they do not have plans to add the service in the near future.

Those include Ascension, Livingston, East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes. Most say they are taking a wait-and-see approach on the emerging technology.

In Livingston Parish, emergency response officials have raised concerns about the security of text-to-911 services, said Lori Steele, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman.

Some have wondered whether it might expose their system to a virus, she said.

“We don’t have any plans to add it in the near future, but we’re watching how it progresses elsewhere,” Steele said.

In East Feliciana, officials say the technology would be impractical until they see improved cell reception, especially in the northeast part of the parish.

“We have the ability now, but it’s a whole different world from how we’ve been doing it,” said Ben Chasteen, director of the East Feliciana Parish Emergency Communications Commission.

And while helpful in certain situations, texting 911 means dispatchers are unable to pick up on important context clues, such as background noises, said Anthony Summers, assistant director of the West Baton Rouge Parish Office of Homeland Security.

“You lose a lot of interaction with people,” he said. “And sometimes texts can be interpreted in different ways.”

Still, about 70 percent of 911 calls are made on cellphones, according to the FCC. That makes texting a natural next step for dispatchers, some officials said.

Randy Metz, West Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office chief deputy, said his dispatch center has just started looking into the technology, but believes it will eventually be commonplace.

“People are more comfortable texting than talking to a 911 operator,” he said. “They just like the ease of it.”

Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter, @Mmckinne17.