UT Police preparing to initiate Text-to-911 program

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The UT Police Department plans to install a new 911 communication option called “Text-to-911” by the end of the fall semester. 

The technology initiates a text message-like conversation between callers and 911 dispatchers, and is similar to what is currently used for the hearing impaired. 

Once a text is sent to 911, a call with a dispatcher is initiated and accepted. 

From there, a chat box pops up on the dispatcher’s computer screen, leading to a conversation.

The program will pass through a period of testing, after which UTPD hopes to have the program in operation by the end of the fall semester.

“It’s the technology, everybody’s got a phone in their hand now,” said Ann Treffer, UTPD emergency communication manager. “It’ll really give them an opportunity to communicate with public safety and get the help that they need.”

Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 text messages each day, with 73 percent of all American cellphone users capable of sending and receiving text messages, according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2011.

This communication trend brought about the change in how to report emergencies to the police, but UTPD officials feel the generation gap may create communication problems down the road.

“We would want to involve students as much as possible to try to help us create a little bit of a language dictionary if we felt that it’s needed,” Treffer said. 

Neuroscience and Spanish junior Yanett Heredia said he doesn’t feel a language dictionary will be necessary since former text messaging formats that prompted shortened forms of communication are no longer in use.

“I feel like the whole slang texting kind of already passed with the old cellphones … a lot of people don’t text like that anymore,” Heredia said. 

Journalism junior Carlos Devora echoed Heredia’s sentiments and said he thinks that in an emergency situation, acronyms and abbreviations aren’t as helpful.

“I don’t think that someone’s going to be in a situation when they’re in danger and they’re gonna be like ‘Oh help me, lol.’”

The Capital Area Council of Governments, which provides the funding and equipment for Text-to-911 programs in Central Texas, emphasizes calling rather than texting 911 as the most reliable way to get through to dispatchers.

“There’s kind of a false sense of security when it comes to Text-to-911, that they think that it’s going to be this saving grace and it’s not necessarily going to be that,” Treffer said.

This concern is predicated on the lagging response times that have been reported from other Texas law enforcement agencies who have gone through the testing period or have used Text-to-911 for full-blown criminal incidents. On average, a regular 911 call lasts between one to three minutes, whereas text conversations last 12 to 18.

“What you don’t get on a text is this sense of urgency,” UTPD officer Peter Scheets said. “Is this person panicking? What does exclamation point mean?”

Communication discrepancies aren’t the only concern on UTPD’s radar. Triaging, a 911 emergency categorization method, can vary depending on the types of calls each agency receives. Because Austin Police triage on a higher danger level, Scheets said some 911 text calls that triage on a lower level could potentially fall through
the cracks.

“We have higher or more open first-level,” Scheets said. “It’s not that you have to be injured or assaulted. If you feel unsafe, call us. We’re actually here to react to that.”