Orange County public safety agencies, led by OC Sheriff's Department, launch Text-to-911

By Greg Hardesty

Orange County public safety leaders announced Wednesday the launch of a Text-to-911 system, a service expected to have a big impact on the way police, fire, and EMS personnel respond to emergencies.

Although authorities at the Feb. 6 news conference stressed that voice calls remain the preferred way to report emergencies to 911 (see video below), texting is an important development for the hearing impaired, speech impaired, and those who are unable to make a phone call to reach emergency dispatchers.

“I think I speak for all of us that we anticipate that Text-to-911 messages we receive will exponentially increase over the next year,” Sheriff Don Barnes said at the news conference, held in front of the Santa Ana PD.

The Text-to-911 system comes a little more than 50 years after the first 911 call was placed in 1968 in Haleyville, Ala. It is the latest iteration of a 911 system that has evolved over the years to keep up with changing technology.

It the past two years, the number of new wireless phone numbers activated has outpaced that of landlines for the first time in history, OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said.

OC Sheriff Don Barnes holds a news conference on the steps of the Santa Ana PD headquarters on Wednesday, Feb. 6 to announce the launch of 911 calls via texts in OC.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

And last year in Orange County, 80 percent of the more than 1,243,000 calls received by 911 dispatchers at public safety answering points (PSAPs) came from cell phones, Barnes said.

More than 25 chiefs from law enforcement, fire, the California Highway Patrol, and other public safety agencies joined Barnes in announcing the Text-to-911 rollout to the media.

By 11 a.m. Wednesday, the Orange County Fire Authority already had received five 911 calls via texts, Fennessy said.

Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Irvine PD Chief Mike Hamel, who serves as president of the Orange County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff’s Association, commended Barnes and his agency for taking the lead to develop the Text-to-911 system, which was a couple of years in the making and came at no additional costs to local public safety agencies, officials said.

“A tremendous degree of collaboration between the sheriff’s department, the Orange County Fire Authority, municipal police and fire agencies, dispatch centers, IT personnel, and others has been remarkable, and it has been through this collaboration that we have been successful in implementing this very important service that will benefit the entire Orange County community,” Hamel said.

Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Chief Dan Stefano, chairman of the Orange County Fire Chiefs Association, said development of the Text-to-911 system makes a valuable statement about the good that can come from police and fire agencies working together.

Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

But he and others repeatedly stressed at the news conference that nothing replaces voice-to-voice contact from individuals in need of emergency help and O.C.’s dispatch centers.

“That ability to paint the picture is what we truly want,” Stefano said. “This is another tool in the toolbox, but the message today is, call if you can, text if you can’t.”

Speaking in sign language as her words were interpreted for the media, Renee Thomas, regional director of the OC Deaf Equal Access Foundation, said the Text-to-911 service is a “wonderful tool” that aligns with her non-profit’s mission to empower deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

“In the past, when we had to call 911, we had to rely on somebody to come help us to communicate,” Thomas said.

OC Sheriff Don Barnes delivers remarks at the news conference. Behind him, left, is Undersheriff Bob Peterson, and, right, in white shirt, OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

There are more than 800,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Los Angeles and the surrounding counties, Fennessy said.

There are limitations and restrictions to the Text-to-911 service, officials noted.

As is the case with 911 calls made from mobile devices, dispatchers can’t get an exact address, as they can with calls made from landlines.

And text GPS location is not as precise as current wireless-calling location technology. The accuracy of mapping varies by carrier, said Catherine Borchardt, a dispatch supervisor for the OCSD.

Text-to-911 cannot be used in a group text, and the texts won’t work with pictures, videos, or emojis. And, for now, 911 texts must be made in English.


Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

After entering the numbers “911” in the “to” field, users are asked to type in the “recipient” field the location and nature of the emergency.

“Just as 911 revolutionized the way police, fire and EMS (personnel) respond to emergencies, Text-to-911 will have a profound impact,” Hamel said.

Misuse of the Text-to-911 system, like any misuse of 911 calls, is a misdemeanor with possible penalties including jail, Barnes noted.

Renee Thomas, regional director of the OC Deaf Equal Access Foundation, delivers remarks at the news conference. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge