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More Iowa Dispatch Centers are Closer to Accepting 911 Text Messages

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WATERLOO, Iowa - AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon recently announced they’re providing text-to-911 service to local governments.

That, however, doesn’t mean everyone will have the ability to text emergencies to 911. Only those who live in an area where dispatch centers are prepared to receive texts can use the service.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 16 states have some sort of text-to-911 option.

Many governments are working on system upgrades, so they can receive the text messages. That includes Iowa.

One county in the Hawkeye State, however, is ahead of the curve. Black Hawk County officials said, back in 2009, their dispatch center started receiving 911 texts before anyone else in the country.

They don’t receive a lot, but the texts come in from time to time.

“Maybe half a dozen a month to a dozen a month, depending on the time of year. I think that will pick up when the other carriers come on board and we are able to receive their calls,” said Black Hawk Consolidated Communications Center Administrative Supervisor Judy Flores.

Flores said, right now, her dispatchers only receive texts from I-wireless customers in Iowa. In fact, Black Hawk County gets 911 texts from I-Wireless customers who use it, across the state. Dispatchers get the information to the county that needs it, in order to send responding officers as quickly as possible.

“When we first went live with it, we had a lady that texted 911 that her ex-boyfriend had broken into her home and instead of calling she texted so that he would not hear her and we were able to get officers to her location,” Flores said.

She keeps records on all text-to-911 emergencies, and is thrilled to take the next step to expand the program in Black Hawk County.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to help our citizens and especially our citizens that may be hearing impaired or unable to talk. To me that levels the playing field for those citizens, so they can contact 911 just like your or I could,” Flores said.

State officials said after a $2 million upgrade in 2011 and 2012, more dispatch centers will soon be able to accept 911 text messages.

“We’ve got the infrastructure in place. The next step is to get all of the 911 centers’ equipment upgraded to be able to handle those text messages that are delivered to them through the carriers. So, we are working on that at the present time,” said State E911 Program Manager Barbara Vos.

Vos added that an upgraded phone system could cost more than $100,000. Vos said there’s a grant program to help fund the new technology.

A handful of centers are just about ready.

“I see that within the next two to three months, we’ll start making request to the wireless carriers for those 911 centers that are ready, but the other piece of this is we make the request but the carriers have six months to provide that technology to us. It’s not an immediate thing that happens,” Vos said.

Dispatchers said people should always call 911 before texting, if possible, in times of an emergency. Dispatchers agree, however, that this is one more way to help people in a time of need.

“If one life is saved or we are able to help one person, then the technology is worth it,” Flores said.

Again, right now, only I-wireless customers in Iowa texting 911 will get a message through. If people try to text 911 where the service is not available, they will get a bounce-back message informing them that the service is not available.

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