Metro, News

Rhode Islanders can now text 911

System meant for situations when calling is impossible or difficult, $750,000 to implement

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2019

Anyone in Rhode Island experiencing a police, fire or medical emergency can now contact 911 not only through voice calls but also via text messages thanks to a new service launched Feb. 5 by the R.I. Department of Public Safety. 

Text-to-911 can be a life-saving service in situations where a phone call is not an option, said Gregory Scungio, acting director of the Rhode Island E-9-1-1 Uniform Emergency Telephone System.

“It benefits the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, and also people who aren’t able to make a voice call, perhaps (because) they’re under duress or suffering from a medical episode,” he said.

RIDPS warns that this feature should be used only when calling is not possible, such as in certain domestic violence situations or if a person is choking.“Call if you can and text if you can’t,” Scungio said, because “the ideal way to reach 911 is a voice call.” 

Text-to-911 has several limitations, Laura Kirk, director of public information at RIDPS, explained. It takes more time to communicate emergency information through text messages than over the phone, for instance, and time can be critical in emergency situations. In addition, text messages to 911 are limited to only 140 characters.

Pinpointing a person in need of emergency assistance is also more difficult when dispatchers receive a text. When someone calls 911 from a mobile phone, their phone bounces signals off of three nearby cellphone towers, and this information provides their precise location through a process called triangulation. In contrast, text messages only ping off the nearest tower and thus provide less information about the sender’s location. Additionally, if the sender is moving, a text message will not allow dispatchers to track their location as it changes.

For these reasons, RIDPS wants the public to know that texting 911 should be a last resort, Kirk said.

Text-to-911 has been in the works for the past four to five years, Scungio said. His agency spent this time accumulating the hardware and software necessary to implement the system.

“We were ready to launch it last year, but we had a manpower shortage, and we weren’t comfortable with launching it until we buttressed our manpower numbers,” Scungio said.

The agency has been “hiring at a rapid clip since last year,” he added, and it finally reached sufficient staffing to launch the system last week.

Implementing Text-to-911 also required significant RIDPS staff training, which has taken place over the past several weeks.

“We were able to install the software on a training station right inside the call center, and we had each person spend time using the software with supervisor direction,” Scungio said. Each staff member underwent two training sessions.

The total cost of implementing Text-to-911 was $750,000, which came out of the agency’s budget over the past several years, Scungio said. The system has handled approximately 20 reports since its launch last week, he added. So far, it has operated without major glitches or issues.

Before Text-to-911 was implemented by RIDPS, R.I. lawmakers had proposed a bill to mandate the system. The bill, House Bill 5045, was introduced Jan. 9 for the purpose of developing Text-to-911 and aimed to implement the system  Jan. 1, 2020.

“To me it was very straightforward,” said State Rep. George Nardone, R-Coventry, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It seemed like a common-sense approach.”

This bill was postponed when Text-to-911 was launched on Feb. 5. According to Nardone, the Republican Caucus is still pushing to write Text-to-911 into law.

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