Text 9-1-1

Posted: June 04, 2013

VINCENT EMMANUEL was in the office of the Catholic church where he is a trustee when a drunken intruder barged in with a chip on his shoulder. He was complaining about the noise or a party in the church, or something, but it was hard to tell because the guy was drunk, Emmanuel tells me.

"He was getting loud and out of control and I was afraid it might escalate," Emmanuel says.

Emmanuel feared that picking up his phone to dial 9-1-1 might set him off. Emmanuel says he could have been able to text for help surreptitiously, but text where? Who?

Not the Philadelphia Police Department.

It turns out 9-1-1 texting technology exists, but "we would have to revamp our entire system and the cost would be astronomical," according to Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman.

What Philly police have had, for about a year, is a text tip line.

Not intended for emergencies, it's for citizens to pass along information to police by pressing PPD TIP.

Mayor Nutter says it was put into service "so citizens can easily reach out to police to report crimes, illegal guns" or the location of suspects or wanted persons. More on that a little later.

Emergency-service circles are buzzing about what the Federal Communications Commission has called "Next Generation 9-1-1," which would enable citizens to contact police by text and send pictures and video.

This will make science-fiction science-present.

Remember when Dick Tracy's wrist telephone was a big deal? Who doesn't have a cellphone now?

But things scientific and technological don't always work well the first time out of the box. Added to the inspiration and perspiration cited by American genius Thomas A. Edison, there's also experimentation.

Engineers follow a protocol known as "launch and learn," meaning try something out before going all in.

For 9-1-1 texting, Durham, N.C., served as the canary in the coal mine. It conducted a yearlong experiment to test the text.

There were two perceived beneficiaries: potential victims who didn't want to be heard making an emergency call, and hard-of-hearing people who can't use regular phones.

After the test, Durham made text 9-1-1 permanent in August, I'm told by Jim Soukup, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center, who adds that it is the only city to do so.

The results in the city of 280,000 have not been dramatic. The system "is tested twice a day but have only had three texts," Soukup says in an email.

Durham's system, thanks to previous upgrades, was able to handle the technology, unlike Philly's.

A big drawback is that it's available only to Verizon customers. Subscribers to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc., are out of luck.

Most everyone agrees texting should be used only when a regular call is not an option because it can take longer for a text to be retrieved from the system and read by an operator, who then texts back. Nor does text 9-1-1 provide the location of the caller.

Neither does Philly's text tip, which is a plus in one way.

When a text is sent to the tip line, the tipster can remain confidential. Real Time Crime Center personnel "cannot trace the origin of the tipster if they select to remain anonymous," I am told by Sgt. Jay Bowen.

Between March 2012 and May 23, 2013, RTCC received 6,542 tips, says Bowen. It's not possible to tell how many led directly to arrests.

Text 9-1-1 is a good idea, but not one we'll be seeing in this resource-starved city anytime soon.

So what to do when you are in a situation where you are able to text, but you can't call?

Emmanuel says this is what a cop told him: Text a friend and ask him or her to call 9-1-1 with your location.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/BykoColumns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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