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Nobles County to receive emergency texts from six surrounding counties

WORTHINGTON -- In the event of an emergency, first responders are now just a text message away. "Text-to-911" is now live across Minnesota, allowing individuals with hearing loss or in a situation where speaking would be dangerous to send out a p...

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Worthington Police Department Dispatcher Joe Reith monitors the screen where new technology is installed. (Alyssa Sobotka/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON - In the event of an emergency, first responders are now just a text message away.

“Text-to-911” is now live across Minnesota, allowing individuals with hearing loss or in a situation where speaking would be dangerous to send out a plea for help, state authorities announced Tuesday.

The service was implemented to better serve the deaf, deafblind, hard of hearing or those with a speech impairment. It also provides a potentially safer alternative during a home invasion, domestic violence or human trafficking situation, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety provided as examples.

To use the “Text-to-911” service in emergency situations when calling is not an option, enter 911 in the “to” field on a new text message. Using simple words, explain the nature of the emergency and the exact address in the body of the message. Promptly answer the dispatcher’s questions and follow-up questions.

While using the service is synonymous with person to person throughout Minnesota, what happens behind the scenes may differ at emergency dispatch centers across the state.

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In southwest Minnesota, Nobles and Lyon counties are service hubs for the area’s 13-county district, said Worthington Police Department Dispatch Supervisor Nancy Veen.

Veen said if an individual uses the “Text-to-911” service in Nobles, Rock, Pipestone, Murray, Cottonwood or Jackson counties, the alert is received by the Worthington Police Department Dispatch Center.

“Then we work with that county’s dispatch,” Veen said, adding that the dispatch center located within the county where the text message was sent from is then tasked with alerting the appropriate response crews.

That structure is implemented based on dispatch centers equipped with the technology necessary to receive texts versus those that presently are not, said Worthington Police Department Dispatcher Joe Reith.

The technology updates were funded by 911 fees collected from devices with the capability of making a 911 emergency phone call. The fees, which have been present on phone bills prior to the conception of “Text-to-911,” are distributed to dispatch centers across the state for equipment needs, Veen said.

While state authorities made the announcement this week that the service is capable of receiving texts statewide, Veen said the “Text-to-Call” service in Nobles County has been live since late October.

The dispatch center has received one emergency text message in that approximately six-week time period, she added.

“I’m sure a lot of people don’t realize we can accept texts,” Veen said.

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The goal is not to receive a high number of emergency messages via text. A phone call is always the preferred method to dispatchers, Reith said.

“We would rather talk to people,” he said. “We assume it’ll take longer to text than by phone.”

Veen agreed.

“There’s always a lot of questions (dispatchers) need to ask callers,” she said.

Location accuracy is another reason dispatchers prefer individuals pick up the phone.

“A call is always better for location,” Reith said. “Hopefully as they improve the (Text-to-Call) system the location (accuracy) will get better.”

Because of a possible discrepancy in the informant’s location via text message, Veen said it is imperative the individual send their exact location in the body of the text message when that method is necessary.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety also warned that when using “Text-to-911,” the emergency response time may be lengthened due to the time it takes to type a text and send.

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Delivery of texts and speed of delivery are also not guaranteed, the state department cautioned.

While it’s still too early to tell how well the service functions and performs, Veen said her initial concerns as a dispatcher are not knowing where people are and people not using the service for its intended use.

Individuals should never test the function on their phone if there is not a legitimate emergency situation, she added.

Under Minnesota State Law, individuals who knowingly misuse emergency telephone calls and communications may be charged with a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or, in some cases, felony-level offense.

If an individual accidentally texts 911 when there is no emergency, he or she should send another text or call 911 to let the dispatcher know  there is no emergency.

The initiative to provide text emergency services began in 2014 by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Emergency Communication Networks, a force driven by the deaf and hard of hearing community.

In 2014, all 104 Minnesota 911 Public Safety Answering Points were connected to the network necessary to accept texts. In 2017, necessary training and the installment of capable software and hardware across the state’s seven regions was complete.

For more information, visit dps.mn.gov.

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