Thanks to a technology upgrade, Johnston County residents can text 911 for help instead of calling.
For most emergencies, it will still make more sense to talk to a dispatcher the old-fashioned way, said Jason Barbour, Johnston County director of emergency communications. Talking is often quicker than typing, he said, and it offers the instant relief of knowing someone has heard your plea for help.
Where the service will come in handy, Barbour said, is in situations where a person doesn’t feel comfortable talking on the phone. That includes cases of domestic violence, he said, where it might be safer to send a discrete text message than to pick up the phone. The same goes for home intrusions.
“That’s where we feel like we will get the most use from it,” he said.
The county’s deaf population will also benefit from the new technology. The hard-of-hearing used to rely on special text telephone devices and relay services to communicate with 911, Barbour said. Using those older services can lead to delays at a time when seconds count, he said, and a person might not have access to those devices in an emergency.
Sending a text message to 911 works just like texting anyone else from your cellphone; just address the message to 911. To help dispatchers respond to your emergency, Barbour recommends including your location, the nature of your emergency and whether you need police, fire or emergency medical care.
“It’s just like texting your friends,” he said. “In just a few seconds from the time you hit send, we have it, and we turn around and type back our message, and then you turn around and type back what you need.”
The new capability went live Aug. 11, Barbour said, and so far, no one has used it in an emergency. Dispatchers have received a few texts from people looking to test the new capability, he said, and a few more messages sent by pranksters.
The county got the new capability through its transition from an old-fashioned telephone system to a new Internet-based system, Barbour said. Johnston County Commissioners approved the upgrade last September for the county’s dispatch centers in Smithfield and Clayton, and the money came from the state 911 board. The state requires each county to have two 911 centers, Barbour said, in case an emergency takes one of them offline.
Rather than buying all new equipment, Barbour said, the county decided to lease the next-generation system from Century Link for $50,000 per month. Under that contract, he said, Century Link services the equipment and makes sure Johnston has the latest hardware and software.