The Cornelius 911 Center’s text-to-911 capability, which started last year, makes 911 accessible to callers with a hearing or voice impairment and gives callers another option when speaking would put them in danger.
While the new service, which was launched in September, has been used less than a handful of times, Judy Jenkins, the communications supervisor for Cornelius Police Communications, thinks it will become more popular.
“We do think it will grow in popularity,” Jenkins said. “We are trying to spread the word, ‘911: Call if you can, text if you can’t.’ (But) a voice call continues to be the best way to reach 911.”
Callers from Cornelius and Davidson College who have Verizon, Sprint or AT&T Wireless can send a text message to 911 for emergency help when unable to make a 911 voice call.
But when using the texting service, users must provide location information and the nature of the emergency in the first text message, because the Cornelius 911 Center will get only the location of the closest cell phone tower to the caller’s origin. But, according to the town, as technology improves, so will the capability of locating the caller.
“We will not get location information, so (people) need to give us an exact location otherwise we will have no idea where they are,” Jenkins said. “(People) text into the 911 center and we would respond using the TTY method.”
The call center’s TTY system – traditionally used for people with hearing for voice impairments – will translate the message into text.
The texting service could be used by domestic violence victims who might need to reach out without being noticed. It also could be used if the caller wanted to remain quiet because someone was breaking and entering into a home, if the call came from a hostage situation or if there was an active shooter, Jenkins said.
The call center, which employs eight full-time and four part-time workers, serves roughly 26,000 people in Cornelius and 2,100 throughout Davidson College with a budget of $772,000 per year.
The addition of the texting service didn’t cost the town anything. The call center used its existing TTY service to integrate the texting capabilities into the phone system.
Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle said the new capability helps ensure that people can reach help in an emergency.
“Text-to-911 could be a lifesaver in situations where a voice call is not an option,” Hoyle said in a town press release.
Town officials said there are significant limitations, however. This service, according to the town of Cornelius, can only be used when your cellular phone is in close proximity to a cell tower.
Other nearby 911 centers without this service would not receive texts. In those cases, the caller will receive an immediate “bounce back” message telling them to call 911.
The service also was not developed as a replacement option to calling 911 in an emergency situation, but rather as an enhancement to reaching 911 services in two specific situations, specifically for callers with impairments and when speaking would put a caller in danger.
Police and call center operators want residents to use the texting option only when calling isn’t possible. Because texting is not always instantaneous, it may take longer to dispatch emergency services in a text-to-911 situation.
Callers also should avoid abbreviations or slang and avoid going over a 160-character limit or the use of pictures, video or other attachments, according to officials. The text-to-911 function can only be responded to by the Cornelius Police Department or Davidson College Campus Police. If a medic or fire is needed, a voice call is still required.
Sending fake messages via text carries the same penalties as those called in by phone.
Other police calls
For non-emergency situations in Cornelius and Davidson College, residents should call 704-892-7773. Davidson College campus police can be reached at 704-894-2178 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.