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Can't call 911? Now you can send a text

Lake Oswego joins other Portland metro-area agencies in rolling out a new text-to-911 service

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Leslie Taylor, director of Lake Oswego's emergency communications center, demonstrate the new text-to-911 service. For users, communication with emergency dispatchers will be just like any other texting conversation.The ubiquity of 911 is one of the most important features of the emergency response system in the United States. Any person can dial 911 on any phone and immediately connect to the closest emergency dispatchers, no matter where they are.

But sometimes calling 911 isn’t an option in an emergency, and that’s why Lake Oswego’s emergency communications center (LOCOM) is joining seven other emergency departments to implement text-to-911 service. The service is intended to serve anyone in a situation where a voice call might not be possible, such as a deaf person without access to a TTY device, a domestic violence victim or a person with a weak cell phone connection.

“The motivation — other than it just being the right thing to do — is that TTY devices have become outdated,” explains LOCOM Director Leslie Taylor. “(Deaf individuals) were kind of our No. 1 — we really needed to provide service to that group.”

Taylor was one of the biggest proponents of the new system and contributed a lot of the research to find a vendor and get the technology up and running. She joined representatives from the Portland Dispatch Center Consortium at a press conference Tuesday in Vancouver, Wash., to announce the new service.

In addition to Lake Oswego, members of the Consortium include the Clackamas County Department of Communications, Marion Area Multi-Agency Emergency Telecommunications Dispatch, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications, Astoria 911, Columbia County 911,and the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency.

“It’s a pretty good footprint,” Taylor says.

Bringing the system online has been a two-year process. Consortium members agreed to look into the technology in January 2015, and Taylor spent the remainder of that year researching technology vendors and coordinating among the agencies.

“I was someone who was able to get the ball rolling,” Taylor told The Review last week. “I had some opportunity and a desire to move the project forward.”

Installation and training took place in the first half of 2016, and Tuesday’s press conference marked the start of a public education campaign that will continue through the end of the year. The system is already up and running; officials expect to start receiving more emergency texts once the public outreach ramps up, but Taylor says a handful of texts have already come through to various agencies in the past few weeks.

“Testing and training has really already happened,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of all or nothing — it has to be done in a live environment.”

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Instead of their phones, dispatchers in Lake Oswego's emergency communications center will reply to texted 911 calls using web-based software shown on the screen in the background. LOCOM Director Leslie Taylor says staff can reply to texts, view an approximate location map and forward conversations to other departments if necessary.The system uses Web-based software from TeleCommunications Systems Inc. that looks a bit like an instant messaging chat on dispatchers’ computer screens. Emergency staff are alerted when new messages come in, and the texts are automatically sorted into conversation threads. Dispatchers can type responses or quickly select from a list of phrases, such as ‘Please tell me your name and location.’

The software is paid for by the state's 911 tax, and the consortium also received a grant to fund the public education efforts. One of the biggest hurtles in getting the system implemented, according to Taylor, was the need for it to be universally available in a large and clearly defined area. All the agencies in the consortium had to be ready to go before the system could be publicly rolled out.

“The professional agencies recommended that we be conscious of geographic area,” said Taylor, “and not do the work in a silo.”

The wide footprint is necessary in case the texts go to the wrong service. Voice calls to 911 are routed to the nearest dispatch center based on the caller’s location, but the accuracy of the location provided by a text can vary substantially based on the provider and cell tower, so dispatchers need to be able to quickly forward conversations to nearby jurisdictions.

The limited accuracy also means it’s critical for users to tell dispatchers their location when communicating by text. Dispatchers will automatically see a map of the user’s approximate position, but since the text locations are imprecise, the map isn’t always reliable.

“Your location is imperative — we aren’t going to know,” says Taylor. “Even with a voice call on a cell phone, we have a much better idea of where you are.”

The Federal Communications Commission requires all cell phone carriers to route 911 texts to the nearest emergency service and to immediately send a “bounce-back” message if the text can’t be delivered, informing the sender that they must call 911 instead. In other words, every 911 text will receive some sort of reply, so senders don’t have to worry about whether they’re inside the service area or whether their message was received.

Taylor says the new system will ultimately be replaced by a statewide upgrade to the dispatch phone system; the existing phones are reliable for voice calls, but too outdated to add texting functionality. But an upgraded phone system could be many years away, so Taylor says consortium members decided that it was worth implementing the Web-based solution in the meantime.

“That’s our endgame,” she says. “This is to move it forward — we can take this step today.”

Members of the consortium and the FCC stress that text-to-911 is not intended to replace voice calls and should only be used if necessary. Texts have a limited number of characters, offer less-precise locations and take longer to navigate through the system, says Taylor. But for people who can’t call emergency services, the system provides a critical alternative.

“We still want people to call us if they can,” says Taylor. “But text us if they can’t.”

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..