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9-1-1: No longer just a phone call away


As technology advances, it’s bringing a rapidly increasing number of ways to reach 9-1-1, including text-to-9-1-1, panic button apps for schools, an SOS feature on Apple phones and watches and a button within the Uber rideshare app.

Text-to-9-1-1 has seen the most media coverage so far, with an ongoing string of launches in communities across the US. There have been several success stories, including a California man lost in a state forest who was able to use text-to-9-1-1 to reach help when the spotty signal did not allow phone calls. After sending a text, he was rescued within an hour.

Meanwhile, a woman in North Carolina was rescued after texting with a dispatcher from the trunk of a car when her boyfriend kidnapped her. She had originally called 9-1-1 but when the call was disconnected, the dispatch center switched to text and was able to obtain a description of the car and a likely location, ultimately locating the woman.

Smart device-based technologies have seen successes as well. For example, in late 2017, a woman and her child were rear-ended by a drunk driver. Immediately following the accident, the woman couldn’t see but was able to command her Apple watch to call 9-1-1 for help.

App-based communication options are being rolled out as well. Uber, seeking to improve its reputation on safety, is adding a direct way to call 9-1-1 within the app as an emergency button accessible from the home screen. In late May, Uber announced the button’s availability across the US and said a similar button will be available to drivers this summer.

In the wake of recent school shootings, school districts are exploring the use of panic-button mobile apps on the phones of teachers and staff that can connect users with 9-1-1 operators to report an active shooter or other incident such as a fire.

More success stories and best practices can be expected as additional technologies come out. However, the new 9-1-1 tech features have had their share of hiccups, as well. Recently, a pilot rollout of an enhanced version of the Uber 9-1-1 button failed to work as expected in Chattanooga, Tenn. Along with location, dispatchers in the six test cities should be able to see the caller’s name and a description of the vehicle, but that information didn’t show up during a news crew’s testing in the city.

Meanwhile, the ability of both the iPhone and Apple Watch to dial 9-1-1 with a few taps in the Emergency SOS mode has been cited as a potential reason for a large number of false alarm calls in Sacramento County, Calif., that were traced back to an Apple repair center nearby.

There have also been cases of false alarm calls from customers sleeping on a smartwatch the wrong way and accidentally activating the buttons to contact 9-1-1.

9-1-1 dispatchers can expect a variety of new opportunities and challenges related to these technologies, as well as even more communication technologies coming down the pike. This will require dispatchers to tap into their well-known ability to adapt and juggle information from multiple inputs while remaining calm and getting help to the right place. Fortunately, there is no better qualified group of people to adapt to these new circumstances.


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