Marylanders will be able to text 911 within months, officials say

When you call 911, you want to speak with a dispatcher as soon as possible. But what if, at that moment or in general, you aren't able to speak at all?

This past week marked a deadline for phone carriers to be able provide text-to-911 service in areas where dispatchers are ready to receive the messages, according to the FCC. In Maryland, the state wants those capabilities to come online in all jurisdictions at once and is anticipating that it will be ready in four to six months.

"It's an aggressive timetable, but it should put Maryland as a statewide leader in the country," said Gordon Deans, executive director of the Emergency Number Systems Board, the state office overseeing the program. "You don't want anyone to wonder, 'I'm in Montgomery County — do we have 911 texting here?'"

Frederick County has been accepting 911 text messages from Verizon customers for the past year as part of a pilot program for the state. FCC records show 911 texting is available on a limited basis in just 15 other states.

Chip Jewell, director of emergency communications for Frederick County, said that move was motivated largely by the presence of the Maryland School for the Deaf. "We felt we owed it to the people we serve to be proactive."

Because of the way the texts come in and are handled — it is a different system from voice calls — officials say localities might need to hire more dispatchers. But Jewell said Verizon customers in Frederick County have rarely used the service.

He said Frederick dispatchers had received "maybe" one emergency text per month; Deans put the number at five total.

"We think that number will grow, but we're confident that what we've seen in the nationwide test is that those numbers are not significant that it will impact staffing," Deans said. He said a survey of young people, who are more likely to send text messages, showed that they preferred calling over texting in an emergency.

Jewell said that calling remains the preferable way for dispatchers to handle an emergency request, and those who have sent a text are encouraged to call if they can.

Jewell said the transition does not carry a burdensome cost for local government, but is a technical challenge. The next progression — accepting multimedia messages such as pictures and video — is expected to carry a heavier price tag, according to Deans.

"We're going to pick [a text message provider] who can grow with our system as a reasonable cost for the state of Maryland," Deans said.

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