05.19.2015Personal Tech

HopeLine Hero Dispatchers: The Text to 911 Lifesavers in Indiana

It sounds so simple: Text a 911 alert to emergency responders for help in a situation when moments matter and lives are threatened. But it was years in the making for many states. Now Indiana is one of three states in the lead to make text to 911 happen, and one Indiana county in particular participated in the pilot project that’s now a model for the state.

At the Bartholomew County Public Safety Answering Point, anyone can text for help, and dispatchers are trained to text back on a wireless call hang-up.

For many domestic violence victims, this option has been a critical lifeline.

Ed Reuter, the county’s emergency operations director, remembers when it came off the Hollywood screen and into his dispatcher training as he showed a trailer from the movie “The Call.” In the scene, a young woman calls 911 asking for help when an intruder enters the home. As per policy, there’s a call back to her phone. Because of that ring, the intruder finds the woman hiding under a bed.

Reuter said it’s not a scenario anyone wants to have happen in real life. “It’s one very real way we can get people help,” he said.

And it’s already happening in his county — with this survivor’s story featured on RTV6, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis.

Tammy Howard originally dialed 911 and just set the phone on the counter when she needed help on a Sunday night. That was enough for dispatchers to use GPS to figure out her location and send police to the scene. While officers were en route, Howard's then-boyfriend left the room.

That's when she decided to text "Pls help" to 911. In response to the text plea, a dispatcher texted back questions about her name and location.

The altercation ended when police arrived and arrested the man on charges of criminal confinement and domestic battery.

The case highlights why this program is of critical need, especially in domestic violence-related police visits to homes and businesses. Verizon is already voluntarily providing text to 911 services via our network, and we’ve worked closely with public safety agencies to enable customers to send text messages to local 911 call centers.

Reuter, whose agency is supported by an infrastructure Verizon tower at the center, said the outbound texts by his staff so far are outpacing inbound. But that is likely to change as the new statewide program gets more attention and people realize they can safely and quietly text 911 in emergencies. Dispatchers reply to texts via their computer screens, and the conversation is also delivered to officers who are responding so they have those critical texts for review.

Of 36,000 911 calls a year to the Bartholomew County center, close to 90% are made on mobile phones.

Reuter’s agency also developed a standard operating procedure that’s being copied by many agencies. As a member of the Statewide 9-1-1 Board and a former state police officer for decades, Reuter knows better than most the value of a safe call in an emergency.

“We need to change our mindset — and text back first.”

During Law Enforcement Appreciation Month this May, let’s thank everyone who lends emergency support to those most in need when domestic violence erupts and lives are at risk.

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