Texting 911 coming to Utah

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 Utah) - It's the number we call when we need help fast. Now you will soon have another way to reach 911.

Utah is joining a handful of states that allows you to text 911 for help. It’s all in an attempt to keep up with the younger generation that prefers texting.

During the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, students hiding from the gunman tried texting 911-- not knowing their messages would go no where.

“That's really the only way that they communicate,” said Scott Freitag, Salt Lake City 911 director. “We need to be able to meet their expectation.”

Now 911 in Utah is trying to catch up with the times. This summer the state will begin a pilot program with the state's two main cell providers.

“Texting will be effective if someone is reporting a minor traffic accident without injuries or that maybe they are a victim of a crime and they can't make a phone call they can't talk, maybe the bad guy is still there they want to text the information in,” said Freitag.

But in other situations, operators are bracing for a communication nightmare, such as when giving medical instructions or calming emotions.

“Dispatchers are taught calming techniques and those techniques are best given over the phone with a voice rather than try to do it over the phone with text messages,” said Freitag.

The director of the state's 911 program says texting will require a makeover of the state's current operations, not only with re-training dispatchers, but also massive software upgrades.

“We got to re-do everything,” said Eric Parry, director of the state’s 911 program.

The state is juggling all this while trying to fix a more pressing problem highlighted by the recent death of a heart attack victim. His cell phone call to 911 was lost-- routed to the wrong dispatch.

“We just simply can’t have calls that are being re-routed,” said Parry.

Texts sent to the same towers could be re-routed too. It's just one of many kinks that still need to be worked out, but operators say texting 911 is something that needs to happen.

“Anyway to improve the way the public can access 911 has to be a good thing,” said Parry.

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