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While calling is still preferred, texting is now an option for people who need it

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Text to 911 now avaialble in Crook County.

There aren't many instances where calling 911 isn't an option.

But for those rare times when calling and talking to a dispatcher isn't possible, local residents can now text to 911.

The option is intended to reach people who are not able to convey an emergency through a standard phone call to emergency personnel. This might include people with hearing or speaking problems or perhaps someone involved in a domestic violence situation who wants to make a silent call for help. In addition, people in remote locations might still be able to send a text message when conventional phone service is not available.

Text to 911 first became available in Crook County this past August, following recent phone system upgrades, although its availability has not been widely known or publicized up to this point as other communities tested the new option to ensure it will work as intended.

"The first ones in the northwest Oregon PSAPs (public safety answering points) were (available) Aug. 23, 2016, so we are a little behind them," said Tobie Reynolds, Communications Director with Prineville Police Department, adding that other counties have been testing the Text to 911 after going live.

Now, local emergency services leaders are planning to shine a light on the Text to 911 option.

"We are gearing up our campaign to get it out to the public right now," Reynolds said, noting that the effort will include work with Deschutes County and Frontier 911, which serves Jefferson, Gilliam, Sherman and Wheeler counties. "We may need to do some advertising and public announcements and that kind of thing."

Reynolds says that use of Text to 911 is as easy as typing the familiar three-digit emergency number into your text address line, typing in a text message and hitting send.

"It comes in as a ring, but it rings differently than all other calls," she continued. "When you pick it up, a screen pops up and says what they have already typed to you. and you can type back to them."

While using the feature is easy, Reynolds stresses that people using the option should type standard sentences and refrain from including popular shorthand abbreviations like BRB (be right back).

"We need to be able to understand what you are saying," she explained.

Although the addition of Text to 911 was spurred by a growing demand for the option, and the Oregon Legislature now mandates that all carriers be able to deliver texts to 911 PSAPs, the standard phone call remains the preferred option for reporting emergencies.

"It takes longer for the person to text and then for us to get it, decipher it and then text back," Reynolds said. "That's why our catchphrase is, 'Call if you can, text if you can't.'"

Going forward, work continues to embrace new technology and incorporate it into the emergency dispatch system. For example, Reynolds said that the ability to send photos or video to 911 dispatchers from smartphones is likely coming at some point in the future.

"I am happy to have Text to 911," she said. "It is another tool in our toolkit to be able to help people, and I think it is the future. Technology is moving ahead so quickly in the entire world that we have to be able to keep up with it in order to help people."

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