After two years of use, a program that allows Hawaii residents to text 911 in case of emergency has seen little use on Hawaii Island.
The “Text to 911” program, which was quietly launched throughout Hawaii in 2016, allows users to send text messages to emergency services simply by texting to 911.
The system, said Hawaii Police Department dispatch Lt. Alan Kimura, is intended to be used in circumstances when making an emergency phone call would be impossible or dangerous — for example, if the caller suffers from a medical condition that renders him or her incapable of speaking, or if the caller is hiding from an assailant.
In addition, hearing-impaired users can benefit from a text conversation rather than an audible one.
Since its inception, the service has seen only occasional use. Kimura said the service receives, on average, about 25 texts a month on Hawaii Island, many of which are simply made to confirm whether texting 911 is indeed possible.
“We’d definitely encourage people to call rather than text,” Kimura said.
Because of the nature of text messages — slow to compose, slow to respond — phone calls remain ideal in nearly all circumstances, particularly because emergency responders cannot determine callers’ locations from text messages like they can with a phone call.
Should an emergency text be required, however, Kimura said providing an address is the most important information to offer, as well as the nature of the emergency.
However, the next phase of the Text to 911 program might be on the horizon, Kimura said, in the form of “Next Generation 911,” or NG911.
NG911 is a nationwide initiative by 911 responders to upgrade their dispatch systems to digital or internet protocol-based systems that would allow responders to receive not only voice and text messages, but photos and videos as well.
Currently, a text sent to 911 in Hawaii County is processed by the Police Department’s dispatch system, which is unable to process encoded video or image files. The improvements of NG911 would allow for faster responses and higher volumes of data traffic, according to the National 911 Program.
“A lot of times, people have videos or pictures up on social media before we can even hear about them,” Kimura said. “This way, somebody could just send us the video and it would be police evidence without us having to track it down.”
Kimura said NG911 would require upgrades to the dispatch system’s storage infrastructure because of the size requirements for storing images and video files.
This upgrade, however, is likely years away. While the National 911 Program reported last year that 22 states (including Hawaii) and territories have sufficient statewide infrastructure to process multimedia messaging, the majority do not. According to data from the FCC, only a little more than 1,500 agencies throughout the country allow for Text to 911 services.
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