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Residents can call and text 911: GF, Polk, Cass and Clay counties starting new emergency service

GRAND FORKS — Emergency dispatch centers in the Red River Valley are starting to get the ability to receive text messages and photos from cell phones.

Polk County recently started the text-to-911 service and Grand Forks, Cass and Clay counties expect to follow sometime this year.

But officials aren’t expecting the service to be very popular.

“We can tell there’s not going to be a lot of texts and we’re hoping that stays the case because the best way to reach us is to call 911,” said Becky Ault, director of the 911 Public Safety Answering Point for Grand Forks County. “For the most part we don’t anticipate a lot of changes in how citizens contact 911.”

She said the main group that would benefit from text-to-911 would be the hearing-impaired, who now rely on bulky equipment to send text messages via landlines.

“That’s really what this texting to 911 initiative is all about: bringing them in,” said Jason Horning, a program manager with the North Dakota Association of Counties. “They haven’t had that easy access to 911 like everybody else has.”

The Federal Communications Commission says another reason to text 911 is if calling a dispatcher would put a person in danger.

This is a key year for text-to-911 around the nation because the four major cell phone providers — Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — have voluntarily committed to providing the services in their coverage area by May 15. It’s up to 911 dispatch centers to upgrade their equipment so they can receive the text messages, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Until the service is available, people texting 911 will get a bounce-back message from their carrier that they need to call 911.

Texting problems

One of the reasons Ault and Horning prefer people call 911 because text-to-911 has some flaws.

While calling from a cell phone and or landline provides dispatchers with the location of the caller, a text message will only provide the location of the cell service tower nearest to the caller.

Text messages also aren’t always received immediately.

“That’s just one of the limitations of the text capabilities that are provided by the carriers,” Horning said. “There’s not a lot we can do about that.”

And texting is simply not as efficient in an emergency as talking on the phone, according to the FCC. “Voice calls allow the 911 operator to more quickly ask questions and obtain information from the caller, while two-way communication by text can take more time and is subject to limits on the length of text messages,” the agency said.

For all those reasons, Horning is stressing people to “Call if you can, text if you can’t.”

Still Ault said the technology is always evolving.

“When we first had wireless technology we only got the tower location,” she said. “As technology evolved and we improved the systems that are out there, both on the provider side and on our side, we got much more detailed information.”

Ready for text

Text-to-911 already is available in more than two dozen cities and counties in several states and statewide in Iowa, Maine and Vermont, according to the FCC. But dispatchers in those areas have not seen a boom in usage. Maine, for example, reported receiving 20 texts since May 15, 2013, and Vermont has only reported 36 since 2012.

Because Grand Forks and Cass counties already have the base technology to receive texts, they will be the first in North Dakota to start text-to-911, according to Horning.

When the Grand Forks dispatch center was built in 2011, officials anticipated the advances in technology, he said, so it will only cost about $6,500 to implement text-to-911. After that initial cost, he said total recurring expenses for the center should be reduced by about $3,300 each month.

Clay County has the same technology as Grand Forks and will start at the same time, according to Mary Phillippi, the dispatch center’s assistant director.

Polk County got the capability three weeks ago as part of a remodeling and upgrade of its law-enforcement center, according to County Commissioner Warren Strandell. He said the county can receive not just text messages and photos but video as well.

While there is no timeline in place in North Dakota, Horning said the text-to-911 system will eventually be implemented statewide. The state of Minnesota said it is also headed for statewide implementation.

For more info on text-to-911, go to

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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