Iowa County Launches 911 Service Via Text Message

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A 911 call center in Black Hawk County, Iowa, is now accepting emergency text messages — the first in the nation to offer such a service. Melissa Block speaks with Thomas Jennings, police chief in the county seat of Waterloo, Iowa.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Melissa Block.

If you live in Black Hawk County, Iowa, and you have an emergency, you can now send a text message to 911. Last week, Black Hawk became the first county in the country to accept 911 text messages.

Thomas Jennings is police chief in the county seat of Waterloo, Iowa, and he joins us now.

Chief Jennings, welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS JENNINGS (Chief of Police, Waterloo Police Department): Thank you.

BLOCK: And I guess this has been in place for about five days now. How many emergency text messages have you gotten so far?

Mr. JENNINGS: We haven't had one yet.

BLOCK: Not one yet.

Mr. JENNINGS: Not one yet.

BLOCK: Well, things are going smoothly, I guess, in Waterloo.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. That's a good thing to have.

BLOCK: Help us understand how this will work. If you do start getting text messages, it's only on one wireless carrier, right?

Mr. JENNINGS: Correct. We started this project - or our involvement got started probably two years ago. We needed a new phone system for the Black Hawk County dispatch center. Part of our goal was to have a system that not only met our needs two years ago but also with the changing technology would grow with us.

Text messaging, with the younger generation, there are a upcoming group of individuals that would rather text than actually call anybody. So the board really saw a need to have that ability.

And if you would add to that formula, we have a number of individuals who have hearing disabilities, speech disabilities. We saw a need for the Phase 2 phones to have to be able to communicate with individuals through text messaging.

BLOCK: If you were to get a text message in the 911 system, how would you trace where that person is?

Mr. JENNINGS: When a text message in, one of the first things they do is give their zip code as to where they're at. We would then ask for further, you know, information. With Phase 2, we have the ability to triangulate the location of the cell phone.

BLOCK: Through GPS or something like that?


BLOCK: Mm-hmm. Do you think there's a downside, Chief Jennings? I mean, if you're on a 911 call, there's a back and forth. People can explain what the situation is, where they are, all sorts of information that I think would take longer and be more cumbersome with text messaging.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, our first goal is always to be able to talk to them. With the hearing disabled, it is going to take a little bit longer. But again, the ability to communicate with them and to have that communication no matter where they're at, I think, is an advantage. And a number of people anymore can almost text as fast as they can talk. There's just a new language of texting.

BLOCK: Well, yeah, I was going to say, they might do it with shorthand that you'd have to decode.

Mr. JENNINGS: We have a dictionary for every dispatcher so that if they are using a texting code or their own shorthand, we have a reference book that we can communicate with them.

BLOCK: Really? What's in the dictionary?

Mr. JENNINGS: It starts everything from LOL to 5O. It's kind of a text messaging cheat guide.

BLOCK: Now, wait a second, LOL, laughing out loud?


BLOCK: Why would that be on a 911 text message?

Mr. JENNINGS: Think of it as a Webster dictionary. They don't have just words in the dictionary for calling dispatch. It's the language. So it'd depend on what they were talking about.

BLOCK: I see. So you'd be hoping you wouldn't be seeing LOL coming in on the 911 text message.

Mr. JENNINGS: I hope so.

BLOCK: Something would be going wrong if you were.


BLOCK: Well, Chief Jennings, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. JENNINGS: Thank you.

BLOCK: Thomas Jennings is the police chief of Waterloo, Iowa in Black Hawk County, which last week became the first county in the country to accept 911 text messages.

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