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‘Text to 911’ is here for some, but lags behind in state’s largest counties

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MOUNTLAKE TERRACE, Wash. — In an emergency situation, most of us know to call 911.

But what if that wasn’t possible?

Imagine an active-shooter situation, where talking into the phone would give away your location. Or you’re a victim of domestic violence, and whispering into the receiver puts you in danger.

In 11 of 39 counties in Washington, people can actually text their emergency to a dispatcher.

In places like Snohomish and Kitsap counties, Text to 911 is a lifeline for certain emergency situations. It's also the the first step in the next-generation of "Enhanced 911" coming to Washington over the next few years.

Yet while it's an important lifeline, it's lagged behind in the state's biggest counties. Even though it was promised long ago.

A new way

Snohomish County dispatchers were among the first in the state to get Text to 911. They've been operating the program since 2015, and take a few texts each day.

Still, it's greatly underused in comparison with the traditional phone call.

"We respond to hundreds of 911 calls every day," said Snohomish County 911 Deputy Director Terry Peterson. "And we're only responding to maybe a half dozen text messages a day."

Counties that have Text to 911

This is true in other areas where you can text your emergency. Thurston County, the first in the state to implement a text 911 system, received 149,484 emergency calls in 2017. Dispatchers only received 181 texts over the same time period.

Perhaps it's because there's still little things to work out. Text to 911 in Snohomish County doesn't automatically share your location. People are encouraged to give their address in the text. Or at least give as much as their location as they know how.

Or maybe it's because seemingly very few people know Text to 911 exists in certain counties. This is, in part, due to little outreach done by emergency managements centers.

The state plans on doing a big media push, after Text to 911 is operating statewide.

Still in the works in King, Pierce counties

King County Executive Dow Constantine said the county was getting close to Text to 911 in 2014. Then again, officials said it would be ready in 2017.

Now, the plan is to have it ready by this summer, said King County spokesperson Cameron Satterfield.

An example of a 911 text in Snohomish County.

"We are very close to having the system ready and implemented," Satterfield told Q13 News.

The problem, say officials in both King and Pierce counties, is security. Text to 911 and the programs necessary to run the system are more vulnerable to hackers than a simple phone system. Firewalls and other security apparatus need to be in place. Plus, moving to new systems required by Text to 911 take time.

Bugs are not an option when it comes to people's safety.

"There were significant vulnerabilities that needed to be addressed," said Scott Heinze, deputy director of Pierce County's Emergency Management Department.

Washington State Enhanced 911 Coordinator Adam Wasserman agreed that each county should feel secure in the process before systems go up. The ins-and-outs of working with the FCC and telecommunications systems take time.

"Anytime you've got this kind of electronic system, there's always a concern that people form the outside can get into it," Satterfield said. "That's why we've taken this extra time and these extra steps to make sure the 911 system is safe, 100 percent reliable and secure." 

The Text to 911 system doesn't cost taxpayers or users any additional money. Each phone user is billed about 90 cents each bill cycle for emergency services.

Seventy cents goes to the county, and 20 to the state. That rate has stayed the same, Wasserman said, even as the Text to 911 system goes up.

More to come?

Text 911 is the first step in the move to make 911 accessible for all. Someday soon, officials said, 911 dispatchers could receive all forms of communication as part of an enhanced 911 program.

"The initial project is text," Heinze said. "After that it will be video, pictures and even biometric data."

The end goal, all agreed, is to make 911 easier to reach from the variety of forms of technology people use for communication.

And hammering that out takes time to work through right.

"Text to 911 is an important capability for the public," Heinze said. "We're trying to get it online as quick as possible."

Dispatchers work in Snohomish County.