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Columbus Dispatch

Angie Lopez, a near six-year dispatch veteran, spends time Wednesday afternoon at her work station inside the Columbus Police Department. Lopez said she believes the new Text-to-911 system provides county residents with another option if they are unable to call for help during an emergency situation in the conventional manner.

Area law enforcement recently announced the implementation of a Text-to-911 system catering to the deaf/hearing impaired community in Platte County and those in adverse situations where calling for help isn't an option.

Columbus Police and departments spanning Nance, Merrick, Boone, Butler, Polk, Platte and Saunders counties – all-encompassing the east-central Nebraska 911 group – have worked with local and area cellphone providers to offer the service, Capt. Todd Thalken told The Columbus Telegram.

Providers within Platte County synced to the system are Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and U.S. Cellular.

Thalken said the system has been intact for several months, however, the department wanted to ensure several providers were capable of offering the service before making the announcement to the public.

The captain said an assortment of next-generation 911 ideas is making waves around the country. The gist, he said, is figuring out how dispatch can communicate most efficiently and rapidly with somebody needing help.

“It’s a lot of pie-in-the-sky, a lot of theories right now about what next-gen 911 will be,” Thalken said. “They are talking about accepting videos and pictures through 911, different systems being tied to video feeds in schools; but the first one that looked real was this Text-to-911.

“And this is really appealing because there has never been a good mobile solution for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.”

He added that prior to the technology being available, this group relied on a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) system, which is essentially an old-school version of text messaging from a landline phone.

While it’s a handy tool, people need to be aware that by sending a text message it’s impossible for first responders to pinpoint an actual location of where the caller is located. Dispatch can lock down a range through where the call pings off of a cellphone tower, however, a definitive location must be provided by the caller.

This is why, if possible, the caller should always call dispatch instead of texting, Thalken said.

With that being said, though, the Text-to-911 option is viable, and if the caller is able to provide adequate information to dispatch, he or she will receive immediate attention during an emergency situation.

Angie Lopez, a near six-year veteran of the Platte County 911 call center located inside of the police station, said that when somebody sends in a text message, it flows directly to her or one of her co-workers' screens. Dispatchers have a list of pre-designed messages ready to send to interact with the distressed in the quickest manner possible, however, it’s also possible to send customized messages.

“Just in case somebody isn't able to communicate in person, the Text-to-911 -- let’s say a suspect is in the house – then they can get a hold of us via text, which I think is a safer route for them,” Lopez said of the system's benefits. “And we can get back to them, just like regular texting."

Thalken added the total expense for the department is minimal; the approximately $1,500 monthly price tag is divided among the other six counties included in the east-central Nebraska 911 group.

It’s a bang for its buck, and it’s another tool in Platte County law enforcement's arsenal. In fact, Lopez said she received a Text-to-911 message on Wednesday, though it ultimately proved to not be an emergency situation.

“I believe it is a good thing that came out,” she said. “I know sometimes people are afraid to call, and I think texting will be another (way) for them to reach out to us so we can help them out.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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