Southside emergency services directors highlight text-to-911 system

Text messages may get through when phone calls won't

DANVILLE, Va. – If you need to report an emergency, your first reaction is likely to pick up your phone and call 911.

For most people nowadays, that phone is their cellphone.

If the cell towers get overloaded with calls for damage or other storm-related emergencies, though, your call may not go through.

Danville Emergency Services Director Steve Dishman said that's where texting comes in.

"It takes less of a signal, or less bandwidth, at times to send a text message," Dishman explained.

Because of that, sometimes a text message will go through when a call won't.

The city's dispatch center has had the ability to receive texts for about three years, but Dishman said many people may not be aware of the service.

"We've put the information out before, but I'm not sure that people have paid that much attention to it," Dishman said.

The service could also come in handy during active shooter events, like the recent school shooting in Florida.

"A lot of people are now looking at things like school shootings or whatever and one of the things they want people to do is hide and be quiet. Well, obviously it's hard to speak on the phone and be quiet," Dishman said.

Michael Gobble helps train the city's dispatchers.

He said having the ability to communicate via text has come in handy.

"The person was in a residence where they weren't able to actually make a phone call and they felt like texting was the best," Gobble said.

He said dispatchers like having the ability to help people via text.

"We like to help people any way that we can, so we like to have the technology available to help them," Gobble said.

Pittsylvania County dispatchers can also send and receive texts.

In an e-mail Thursday, the county's emergency management director, Jim Davis, said the county was an "early adaptor" of the technology.

He pointed out that it is particularly helpful for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, giving the county a way to help keep people safer if an emergency arises during weather events.

Below is Davis' full statement:

"Pittsylvania County was an early adaptor in moving our 911 Center towards Text2-911. Beginning our new ability in 2016 we can now enable those including who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing with an option they didn't have previously. As a strong advocate for those with disabilities and their need to access 911 we are excited that this is now a reality for them as well as those who could be in a dangerous situation and they can not speak but have the option now to text Pittsylvania County. The current drawback to this is that our dispatchers will still have to rely on questioning the texter on their exact location. Unlike traditional 911 voice calls, this system is still limited in providing the callers location."

As convenient as texting 911 may seem, dispatchers still prefer calls.

Dispatchers cannot pinpoint your exact location when you text like they can when you call.

Calling can also allow dispatchers to potentially pick up on things like your tone of voice or background noise, which can't be picked up through a text message but could help the dispatcher better address your situation.

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