Rock County among few to offer text-to-911

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Frank Schultz
September 13, 2015

JANESVILLE—A new text-to-911 service offered to Rock County residents could some day mean the difference between life and death, but officials still prefer a voice call when possible.

Texting will shorten the time it takes deaf people to communicate an emergency and could allow those threatened with domestic violence to send a plea for help without alerting their attackers, an official said.

Texting also could be a good choice when cellphone coverage is poor and a text can get through where a voice call could not.

The service starts this week.

Rock County is the second county in the state and one of about 15 percent of the country's emergency call centers to offer text-to-911, said Kathy Sukus, Rock County Communications director.

Sukus said that in counties that have the service, its most common use is in domestic violence situations.

The change will be a great step forward for deaf people, said Justin Vollmar of Janesville, an advocate for the deaf and chairman of the Governor's Council for the Deaf.

“We use the videophone to make 911 calls,” Vollmar said in an email. “But how it works is, you dial the 911, and then you gotta wait to be connected to a sign interpreter, which in turn will dial 911 on our behalf.

“The current method is cumbersome as minutes literally can pass rapidly as you are sometimes put on hold.

“Hearing people can dial 911 and immediately be connected to the 911 operator. What if the Deaf caller is having a heart attack? How could they give driving directions to their home in that condition?” Vollmar continued. “How could they wait as they are put on hold?

"And what about a burglar or attacker in the house?" Vollmar continued: “Most Deaf people have the videophone in their living room or the kitchen. What if the thief is right in the living room? How could a Deaf person then call 911 from their bathroom or closet?

“In an emergency situation, you cannot wait a few minutes or be put on hold. … Virtually ... all Deaf people have smart phones and will be certainly using this service.”

But make a voice call if you can; it's faster, Sukus said.

Dispatchers can carry on a text conversation, but that takes up precious seconds in situations when seconds count, Sukus said.

Rock County is paying for the service, which throws the texts up on a computer screen in front of the dispatchers, who can type messages back on their keyboards.

It will cost taxpayers $60,000 in its first five years, Sukus said.

St. Croix County in northwestern Wisconsin announced its text-to-911 service last week. Dane and Dodge counties are two Sukus knows of that are working to start text-to-911.

The nearest county with the service that Sukus knew of is Cook County in Illinois.

“I hope that the Rock County 911 center will inspire other 911 centers in Wisconsin to implement this service as soon as possible,” Vollmar said.

Noting that most call centers nationwide don't have text capability, Vollmar said most deaf people won't get the kind of service they will get in Rock County.

“They will be put on hold for a few minutes, so their fingers will be crossed,” he said.

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