SALINAS — A new service in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties allows people to contact 911 centers via text message.
The service was created for deaf people or those with speech impediments. It is also a tool for people in dangerous situations who cannot make a voice call, such as home invasions, active shooters or domestic abuse.
The service could also be a benefit for people in noisy situations where making a voice call is difficult.
Since a text message consists of a short burst of data as opposed to the constant connection required for a voice call, text-to-911 could be a good option in areas with weak reception.
Santa Cruz County has offered the service for about a year, and receives about two 911 texts per month, said Santa Cruz Regional 911 General Manager Dennis Kidd.
In one case, a man chased a suspect who had just stolen his vehicle, while his deaf wife sent texts to 911.
In another, a fight between roommates that turned violent ended when one barricaded himself in his room and sent emergency texts, Kidd said.
The service has been expanding across the country as telephone and text devices for the deaf are becoming obsolete.
The text-to-911 service is not perfect, and emergency officials say that calling is the best option. Text messages do not allow emergency dispatchers to determine the location of the texter, and it can take more time for them to respond to text messages.
Texts will bounce back if sent from areas where the service is not available.
San Luis Obispo, Merced, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Kern counties are currently deploying their own systems.
There are no translation services, so texts must be sent in English. The service cannot accept pictures, videos or emoticons.
The service has its limitations. Texting takes valuable time, and each message must be relayed to the appropriate agencies. In addition, emergency dispatchers cannot determine where the person is texting from.
Emergency officials therefore say to call whenever possible.
Still, the service could benefit the estimated 63,835 deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the tri-county area, said Wayne Johnson, Coordinator of Client Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center, Inc.
“This will have a very positive impact on a large number of our community members,” Johnson said.
Monterey County District 5 Supervisor Mary Adams praised the system, and said the service will benefit people in the community living “vulnerable lives.”
In 2016, Adams said, California made 28 million 911 calls, and sent 5,000 texts to 911.
“To be able to text for help is incredibly important for people who are in a situations of domestic violence, and people who are in a situations of elder abuse,” she said. “People who are in situations where they are so vulnerable that they cannot pick up their cell phones to dial 911.”