Text to 9-1-1 Improves Situational Awareness in Hostage Situation
Friday, May 18, 2018 | Comments
Text to 9-1-1 offers an additional way for the public to contact 9-1-1, but it can also help provide first responders with improved situational awareness as shown by a recent incident in Michigan.

In April, an Ottawa County man shot two people in another county, killing one, before returning to his home where he held his wife hostage and threatened to kill her next.

The situation posed a threat not only to those who lived nearby, but also to the officers responding to the call. Luckily, officers had a technological advantage: text messages from the man’s wife detailing key information about the home, the man and weapons.

The wife managed to contact her mother who then called 9-1-1 and asked for help. A dispatcher got the woman’s phone number from her mother and used texting functions to reach out to the woman, who responded asking for help.

The dispatcher spent 40 – 45 minutes texting with the woman about critical details, but her husband remained unaware of the exchange, giving law enforcement a tactical advantage.

On a typical domestic disturbance call, two officers would come to the front door and try to make contact. However, aware of the threat posed by the man, officers held back from making contact and instead established a perimeter.

“The only way they (the officers) could have known more was if they were in the trailer itself,” Ottawa County Central Dispatch Executive Director Tim Smith said.

The Rave Mobile Safety 911 Suite used by the county does not require a person to have registered with the county for dispatchers to reach out via text; instead, the dispatcher only needs the person’s mobile number to start a conversation.

That capability proved critical in the response because it allowed dispatchers to discretely and quietly gather information and alert those potentially affected by the incident without revealing key information, Smith said.

While the first dispatcher texted with the woman, other dispatchers aided the effort. One dispatcher relayed the information from the texts to officers at the scene, while others worked with the owner of the trailer park to get the phone numbers of neighbors and send them a text message telling them to shelter in place.

This allowed emergency officials to avoid sending out a regular emergency alert and risk alerting the man of law enforcement’s movements. Dispatchers also communicated some of the details shared by the woman over phone calls with commanding officers on the scene to avoid sending critical information over the radio, where it could potentially be intercepted.

Eventually, the man exited the home with a gun to his wife’s head. An officer shot and killed the man; his wife was physically unharmed. While officers were unable to avoid a violent ending to the situation, Smith said imagines a more tragic ending to the situation without the woman’s texts.

“Literally, I think this saved the lives of two officers,” Smith said.

Ottawa County launched its text-to-9-1-1 program in February 2017. Outside of high-profile events such as the one in April, the text capabilities have benefitted the county in other ways.

“One issue that we face, along with most other dispatch centers, is that about 90 percent of calls we receive are from cellphones, and those are notorious for dropping,” Smith said.

Ottawa County Central Dispatch has a policy of following up on every dropped call or hang-up it can, and the texting capability has helped in closing out those calls.

When dispatchers try calling back on a dropped call, many people will not answer because they think it is a telemarketer or spam call, Smith said. However, with the texting, dispatchers can identify where the text is coming from at the top of the message, making a response more likely.

Since implementing the outbound texting capability, the county has used outbound texting to close about 18 percent of 10,800 dropped calls, Smith said.

The texting capability has also proven effective in suicide scenarios, Smith said. The county has used outbound texting in about 16 situations where the county received word that someone was suicidal. Like the dropped calls, texting provides dispatchers a direct way to contact someone who might not answer a phone call.

Text to 9-1-1 in the U.S.
While the data is mostly patchy and incomplete, numbers show that text messages to 9-1-1 and access to text to 9-1-1 are increasing.

The FCC’s Text-to-9-1-1 Registry lists nearly 1,500 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) that have reported having text-to-9-1-1 capabilities. Six states — New Mexico, Alaska, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and South Dakota — have no PSAPs listed in the registry.

The data in the registry provides an incomplete picture of text-to-9-1-1 progress around the country because reporting it is voluntary.

The FCC’s most recent report to Congress on 9-1-1 fee diversion said that 46 states, plus the District of Columbia, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands reported having text-capable PSAPs. All together, those states reported having a combined 811 text-capable PSAPs at the end of 2016, and estimated that another 1,026 PSAPs would be text capable by the end of 2017, for a total of 1,837.

In the National 911 Program’s 2017 National 911 Progress Report, 25 states reported a total 251,068 incoming text messages to PSAPs in 2016, compared with 25 states reporting a total of 34,700 in 2015. The report does not provide numbers on outbound text messages from PSAPs.

Find the FCC’s Text-to-9-1-1 Registry here.

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