Five and a half years after it was first proposed in Arlington, Text-to-911 capability is finally a reality.
The ability to send a text message to 911 launched today in Arlington. In a press release, officials encouraged those reporting an emergency to call instead of text, unless a disability or a safety risk prevents you from doing so.
From Arlington County:
Arlington County today launched Text to 9-1-1, making it possible to send a text message to our Emergency Communications Center if you can’t call 9-1-1.
“In an emergency, we always prefer that you call 9-1-1,” said Deputy County Manager for Public Safety James Schwartz. “But if you can’t call, you will now be able to text and get the help you need.”
Arlington joins other jurisdictions across the region and the nation who are adding Text to 9-1-1 to their emergency communications options, and reminding callers “call if you can, text if you can’t.”
“Use it only when you cannot establish voice communications or when speaking into a phone would present a significant safety risk,” Schwartz said. He noted, however, that Text to 9-1-1- is particularly useful for persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired.
Voice calls to 9-1-1 are preferred because they make it easier for dispatchers to give commands that can be extremely useful in providing medical assistance such as CPR and basic first aid instructions.
“It is important that anyone who does have to use Text to 9-1-1 provide as much information as possible, including exact location and nature of the incident,” said Jack Brown, director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management.
How it works
Text-to-9-1-1 uses SMS text messaging technology. The Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC) can now receive and send text messages to those in Arlington and Falls Church in need of emergency assistance who can’t make a 9-1-1 phone call. The system, Telecommunications System, Inc., also provides dispatchers with mapping capabilities to help pinpoint locations where text messages are received.
The system allows dispatchers to text up to 250 characters and can handle text messaging both in our main Emergency Communications Center as well as our back-up center.
The Arizona Republic reported last month that Caleb Laieski faces 13 charges in Arizona stemming from an alleged sexual relationship with a boy under the age of 15, a felony even though Laieski himself was a minor at the time. According to Laieski, he has a “consensual relationship” with a 14-year-old boy when he was 16 or 17.
Laieski rose to national prominence in 2010 when he spoke out against the bullying of gay teens in the Phoenix area. He later lobbied Congress to pass anti-discrimination legislation and spoke with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden about issues affecting gay youth.
Laieski, 18, was hired by Arlington County as a 911 dispatcher trainee in May. He was placed on administrative leave for three weeks after the county learned about the charges against him, but he’s now back on the job in an administrative capacity, according to Capt. Adrienne Quigley, Deputy Director of the Arlington Emergency Communications Center. He will continue to work in an administrative capacity pending the outcome of the legal proceedings in Arizona, said Quigley.
“We’re just going to let the criminal justice system run its course,” she said.
If you find yourself in immediate physical danger while walking through a neighborhood, heading to a nearby fire station may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But the Arlington County Fire Department hopes to change that with its “Safe Haven lobbies.”
Although it is not yet widely known, a number of the county’s fire stations have been outfitted with special lobby features to protect a person who goes there for help.
The person in danger can go through the outside doors and into the fire station lobby, where the second set of doors leading to the rest of the fire station is always locked. When the person pushes the button on an emergency box inside the lobby, the outside doors automatically lock and the box calls 911. Someone at the county’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) answers as if it were a typical 911 call placed from a phone. They speak to the person to determine the type of emergency and will then dispatch the appropriate emergency responders to the location.
There are cameras on the ceiling of the lobby that turn on when the emergency button is pushed. While waiting for police or fire fighters to respond, staff at the ECC will monitor the cameras to see what is happening during the call. The outside lobby doors will remain locked until ECC workers hang up the call when they determine the caller is safe.
The system can be used at any time, even if the station is empty while fire fighters are out on a call.
“The fire house is somewhere you can always come if you’re in danger. If you need help or have to call 911, you can come to any fire house,” said ACFD spokeswoman Lt. Sarah Marchegiani. “It’s important to know that if you live close to one of these locations, one of the five that have it, that this exists and it’s another safety for you.”
All of the newer fire stations — 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 — have a Safe Haven equipped lobby. Fire Station No. 9 was the first to be outfitted with the system when it was renovated in the late 1990s. The older stations were not built with lobbies, but the goal is to eventually install this type of a system in all of Arlington’s stations when they are upgraded or replaced.
So far nobody has used the system, but it’s unclear if that is because citizens haven’t had the need or if they’re not yet aware the Safe Haven lobbies exist.
A call comes in for a seemingly typical vehicle accident on a seemingly typical morning in Arlington. But for the rattled caller, the situation is anything but typical. Enter Lynne Putnam, Emergency Communications Tech III. Putnam has 30 years of experience as a 911 dispatcher, 27 of those spent in Arlington County. She attempts to soothe the caller while transferring the person, because it turns out the accident did not occur in Arlington’s jurisdiction.
“Stay on the line, ma’am, I’m sending you to Park Police.”
Putnam remains on the line with the caller until she can hear the person speaking with a representative for the U.S. Park Police. As with this case, Putnam frequently must make sense out of a caller’s choppy phrases and gather all the facts she can. Often, callers panic and collecting the necessary information becomes a more daunting task than it may first appear.
“I think the part I like best is I’m able to help people in their time of need,” said Putnam. “I like being the calming voice on the other side helping you through your emergency.”
Adding to the difficulty of call taking is the ECC goal to answer each 911 call within 90 seconds. Although not easy to rapidly collect information and then move on to the next call, it’s the ECC employees’ speedy actions that help maintain Arlington County Fire Department’s four minute average response time.
“We’re really proud of that,” said Putnam.
Answering 911 calls is only part of the job for Putnam and her co-workers at Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center in the Courthouse neighborhood; they also train as police and fire dispatchers. Although it takes about 18 months for the average employee to become fully trained in all three disciplines, it allows for more flexibility and employees can help out wherever needed.
Dispatchers are the voices the public hears when listening to scanners. They deal with calls to the non-emergency police line as well as emergencies called in to 911. Based on the information entered into the system by the 911 call takers, dispatchers determine which response units should head to the scene and how many units should respond. They examine which units are closest and call them to the scene via police and fire radios, explain the emergency as best they can and sometimes give directions.
“The mechanics of the job look easy, answering phones and inputting information,” said Emergency Communications Tech III Sheree Rymenams. “But there’s a lot of judgment involved for each call.”
Dispatchers say occasionally their jobs can be “like that telephone game” in that the details or severity of the original call can end up being nothing like what officers actually find on the scene. With the long hours, multi-tasking and intense situations sometimes comes nervousness, despite having cue cards at each cubicle with prompts for what to ask in a wide variety of situations. After all, emergency responders’ and citizens’ lives are on the line.
“You can’t worry constantly. You just have to do what you’re trained to do, what you’re supposed to do,” said Rymenams. “It’s a team effort.”
Some Lyon Park residents have expressed concern about Arlington’s 911 system after waiting on hold while calling in last Wednesday’s house fire on N. Highland Street. Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management, however, says everything worked just as it was supposed to.
Some callers reported hearing a recorded message while they were put on hold for several minutes, according to an ARLnow.com tipster. OEM Director Jack Brown confirmed that there were callers who heard a message asking them to stay on the line while the system was flooded with calls. Anyone who hung up was then called back to verify that they were safe and to check if they still needed emergency assistance, exactly like any other 911 hang up.
“It’s not an overburden for us, it’s just very busy in the initial stages of an emergency,” said Emergency Communications Center Commander John Crawford. “The system was working and the people were working. The only issue we get is when lots of people call all at once.”
Crawford explained that Arlington’s 911 call center has a minimum of 10 people staffing it at all times. Typically, calls immediately go through to a staffer. But when an emergency occurs, such as during the Lyon Park fire, there are so many calls that each one cannot be answered immediately.
“The phones just literally lit up. We knew it was something significant,” Crawford said. “If 10 people call 911, the eleventh person is going to get a pre-recorded message asking them to hold. We purposely put that recording in there because in years past the phone would just ring and ring, and people would question if they called the right number.”
The automatic call distribution system immediately sends holding callers to the first available staff member as soon as a line frees up. Once information is gathered from the first couple of callers, the rest of the calls typically move more quickly. Staffers make every effort to gather information from each caller as rapidly as possible to avoid missing an emergency.
“You never know, that eleventh call or twelfth call might be someone in a horrific accident on G.W. Parkway not related to the fire, so we have to go through every call as quickly as possible,” said Crawford. “I have to talk to you but I don’t have to talk to you long. To some people it may sound rude, but I need to cut to the chase and get the info I need and then hang up the phone.”
Crawford noted that Arlington’s 911 call center received significant upgrades five years ago, including expanding the number of phone lines from 16 to 48. Improvements have been made to prevent the system from “locking up” as it did during the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.
“On 9/11, the phones rang and lit up so quick that it locked the system up. Literally hundreds. We couldn’t even get to them,” said Crawford.
9/11 also put into play the rare “code red” alert that gets sent out to staff pagers and phones, ordering them back to work to help with a large emergency. With the additional lines that have been added since that time, the center could now have 48 call takers working at the same time — one for each phone line.
“Thank God, other than a couple of disasters I know of, we haven’t had need to upstaff to that degree,” said Crawford.
Arlington’s 911 center does add extra staff members during anticipated busy times, such as weekend nights and planned events like races. However, on the average day, the 10 or so call takers need to deal with any incidents that arise.
Crawford noted that it’s important for people to continue to call when they see or hear something occur because you never know if another person will call or not. He asks residents to be patient if they’re put on hold during a flood of calls, and promises the call takers are doing the best they can.
“We work for the citizens, those are our customers,” Crawford said. “We try to provide the best possible customer service to them.”
Arlington police officers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and 911 operators were honored today (Wednesday) at the 31st annual Valor Awards ceremony.
The awards ceremony, organized by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, was held at the Ft. Myer Officers’ Club at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. Arlington County public safety personnel who have demonstrated extraordinary heroism or exceptional performance were presented with awards, certificates and medals.
Among those awarded were:
- Donald “DJ Winsock, a 911 operator whose CPR instructions saved the life of a woman who suffered a medical emergency in Rosslyn on August 21, 2012.
- Sgt. Jack Lantz, a nearly 30-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, for meritorious service over the course of his career.
- Sgt. David Bowers, and deputy sheriffs Efthimios Alpos, Monica-Lyons-Carr and Arthur Pitts, who saved the life of an intoxicated woman who tried to commit suicide in a holding cell, after being arrested at Reagan National Airport on Nov. 10, 2012.
- Sgt. Richard Laureano, of the Sheriff’s Office. Laureano used an automated external defibrillator to revive a boy who collapsed during a wrestling match in Woodbridge, while off-duty on Feb. 2, 2013.
- Capt. Kevin Reardon, for 26 years of meritorious service to the Arlington County Police Department.
- Cpl. Richard St. Clair and Officer Patrick Maxwell, for valor while attempting to help Alexandria paramedic Joshua Weissman, who fell 30-feet off a bridge and later died while responding to a car fire on I-395.
- Cpl. David Munn, Officer Daniel Gardner, and Officer Hilary Maloney, for physically restraining a suicidal military veteran from jumping off the 18th floor of a Pentagon City apartment building on June 16, 2012.
- Capt. Trevor Burrell for meritorious service to the Arlington County Fire Department, specifically in the area of firefighter training.
- Firefighter Joshua Wise for helping to stop a car that was driving erratically on I-395, while off duty. After the car stopped, Wise rendered aid to the driver, who was suffering a diabetic emergency.
The full explanation of each award and act can be found below, after the jump.
“Often, this is the only public recognition these officers receive,” said Chamber of Commerce President Rich Doud said in a statement. “It is unique to hear the stories of their heroic acts and to meet the officers involved. We are fortunate that they work in Arlington and perform so selflessly in the service of our businesses and citizens.”
ABC7 meteorologist Brian Van De Graff served as emcee to the lunchtime event. In addition to police and fire department personnel, attendees included Arlington County Board members, state legislators, elected constitutional officials, school officials and local business leaders.
Memorial Bridge in Need of Renovations — The 81-year-old Arlington Memorial Bridge, which was once a functioning drawbridge, is in urgent need of repairs. The repairs could cost as much as $250 million and close the span for three months. [Washington Post]
Free Stuff on Tax Day — Among other Tax Day offers around town today, April 15, California Tortilla is offering free chips and queso to anyone who comes in and uses the secret code “1040.” The restaurant has locations in Courthouse and Crystal City. If you’ve procrastinated and need some free tax advice, check out our three Q&A sessions with local tax pro Bobby Grohs.
Recognizing Arlington’s ECC Staff — Arlington County is recognizing National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which runs April 14-20, and lauding the work of the county’s Emergency Communications Center staff — the men and women you talk to when you dial 911. “We commend these professionals on their tireless efforts to support emergency responders and to provide critical services to the citizens of our nation,” the county said in a press release. [Arlington County]
The matter of keeping up with current technology is prompting county workers to investigate whether Arlington’s 911 system can soon upgrade and add a texting option. While it appears texting eventually will be added to the mix, it isn’t imminent.
“Certainly texting is something we want to get to, especially when someone is in a compromised position where they can’t talk on the phone,” said Arlington County Office of Emergency Management Director Jack Brown. “It’s something I believe is in the future.”
A few communities across the country — such as parts of Tennessee, Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont — have implemented or are experimenting with “Next Generation 911.” The Federal Communications Commission — which in 2010 held a press conference at Arlington’s Emergency Communication Center touting Next Gen 911 technology — announced in December that the top four cell phone carriers in America agreed to speed up the availability of the service, ensuring that 90 percent of the country’s cell phone users would have the capability by May 2014.
Although cell phones will be enabled for emergency texting, few 911 dispatch centers have the ability to receive texts. The Next Gen 911 systems are largely in their infancy and gaps exist to such a degree that officials in Arlington prefer to wait until the technology becomes further perfected.
“We want to put our money and time into the right place the first time,” said Emergency Communications Center (ECC) Deputy Commander Jeff Horwitz. “Prematurely, a resource could be more harmful than waiting to release it. So we’re really nervous about people sending texts to 911 before it’s ready.”
The current programs do not have provisions to allow 911 dispatchers to immediately determine a text sender’s location like they can with a phone call. Some communities moved forward with the texting system even without the ability to pinpoint where an emergency occurred, but Arlington is not willing to take that risk. Additionally, the texting system doesn’t allow dispatchers to determine if a person is quietly awaiting more instructions or if the emergency has resolved itself.
“When you hang up, our system knows you dropped a call. When you text, I don’t know when you’re done. Are you there? Are you being attacked? Are you unconscious? I don’t have any info telling me your call is dropped,” Horwitz said.
Perhaps the most pressing concern surrounding emergency texting is the inability to communicate immediately with callers. Although situations arise in which callers cannot speak to dispatchers, such instances are relatively rare. Typically, dispatchers are able to get more information from callers, soothe them and even offer potentially life saving assistance. It would prove far more difficult for dispatchers to help someone administer CPR, for example, if the person attempted to text while doing chest compressions.
“We really like to be able to talk to the people,” Brown said. “I can just envision someone texting 911 and someone trying to text back instructions. We haven’t worked that out yet.”
Both Horwitz and Brown stressed that implementing a flawed system could prove disastrous. Arlington had a glimpse into the seriousness of a failed 911 system during last year’s derecho, and nobody is interested in repeating that type of scenario.
Update at 12:40 p.m. — Arlington County says its Emergency Communications Center is now accessible from cell phones, but other problems may remain.
More problems with the county’s 911 system are being reported as the area continues to recover from Friday’s storms.
Arlington County says its Emergency Communications Center is “experiencing problems with 911 calls from wireless phones.”
“Verizon is working to fix the problem,” the county said in a brief statement. “Please call our alternate emergency number at 703-741-3035 for assistance if you cannot get through on 9-1-1 or go to your local Fire Station.”
As stated during a press conference with the head of the county’s Office of Emergency Management earlier today, Arlington’s non-emergency number, 703-558-2222, may also be an option for cell phone users to reach emergency dispatchers.
Arlington is recognizing the employees of the county’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) — the folks who answer 911 calls and dispatch police and firefighters to emergencies — as part of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. In a press release, the Arlington County Police Department praised the hard work and dedication of ECC personnel.
The week of April 8-14, 2012 is “National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.” This is an opportunity to honor the men and women of the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center who serve as our public safety communication professionals. They are the voice at the other end of the 9-1-1 call assisting a distressed citizen. They are the voice behind the radio when police, firefighters and medical personnel are responding to emergency incidents. We commend them on their tireless efforts to support emergency responders and to provide critical services to the citizens of our state.
Congress proclaimed the second week of April as National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week in 1991 as a time to remember the critical role dispatchers play in keeping the public and public safety community safe. Today, calls placed to 911 centers across the nation are answered by these professionals to provide support to law enforcement, Fire-EMS, and other government field personnel.
Please join the Arlington County Police Department in thanking the telecommunicators and staff members for their continued dedication, hard work, and ability to multi-task while assisting the community and responding emergency personnel.
ECC Employees Overworked, Underpaid — Arlington’s emergency communications center is suffering from chronic understaffing and staff high turnover rates. The ECC, which handles 911 calls and police/fire/EMS dispatching, is hoping for a 10 percent boost in funding in this year’s county budget. [TBD]
Abortion Regulations Pass General Assembly — Gov. Bob McDonnell is promising to sign a bill that will impose new regulations on Virginia abortion clinics. The bill, which passed the General Assembly yesterday, would hold abortion clinics to some of the same stringent safety regulations as hospitals. Pro-choice groups are warning that the bill could force many clinics to close. [Washington Post]
Map Puts Arlington at Top of the Healthy Heap — Our congressional district, Virginia’s 8th, is the healthiest in the country, according to the American Human Development Project. As this map interactive shows, our residents are expected to live the longest of any other district in the country.
Hang On to Your Hats — Dangerously high winds are expected this afternoon.
Flickr pool photo by Reid Kasprowicz