Orange County joins statewide text to 911 initiative

1 in 3 Central Florida counties offer new service

ORLANDO, Fla. – Since Orange County began using text to 911 service last month, county officials say they have already received 20 texts along with the countless other calls for service. 

While the main purpose of the technology is to be able to communicate with the deaf community, it can also be used in situations where it might be too dangerous to talk, such as a domestic violence incident or a school shooting.

In one recent example, a woman in Apopka was scared intruders had made their way into her office building. 

“I hear noises downstairs," she said in a text. "I could totally be paranoid but I'm too scared to go see if someone’s down there."

She was able to text her concerns and dispatchers sent police immediately. While in her case it was a false alarm, it was a legitimate call for help that got first responders to the scene quickly.

“We want you to call when you can and save the text for when you can't,” said Kimberly Stewart Horan, the division chief of fire communications at Orange County Fire and Rescue. “Let’s say you tried to make a phone call, maybe there are reception issues, you're not able to get through and maybe you can with a text.”

However, Stewart-Horan said the biggest breakthrough the text to 911 feature provides is being able to communicate with the deaf community. On the county's website, there are subtitles and a master deputy using American sign language to communicate how the new service works and when to use it, and when to not.

News 6 spoke with two members of the deaf community who work at the Center for Independent Living in Winter Park about the implementation of text to 911.

“I believe in equal accessibility in America,” said Kumar Singh, an outreach specialist at the Center who uses American Sign Language to communicate. “And that is very important for everyone to be able to have accessibility for their different needs and disabilities.”

“Text to 911 is a great concept to open up accessibility and to open up options to people,” said L.J. Williams, also a communications specialist at the center. “However we must understand that not all in the deaf community are the same. Everybody has individual modes of communication, everyone has different needs.”

Williams and Singh said before this new service became available in Orange County, the deaf community living in the county limits used a video relay service to be able to call 911. However they said that system had delays. They said the text to 911 service is a great first step, but more needs to be done to help members of the deaf community communicate with the actual first responders when they get to the scene.

Another suggestion Williams and Singh had is to use pictures to help deaf children or those with language barriers communicate with 911 dispatchers using text. But Stewart-Horan said she discourages the use of any pictures or emojis when using text to 911.

Even though text to 911 can be a faster way to communicate for help, first responders don't want the public to use it instead of calling for help and definitely not when driver's are on the road.

“You want to make sure you leave those lines available for people who really are having a true emergency,” Stewart-Moran said.

She said another limitation of texting is that first responders can’t get precise location information through a text like they can when you call 911 for help. There are also limitations when it comes to those who don’t speak or text in English.

“If you have the ability to call, we have the capability of using a translation service and we can translate a voice call to any language imaginable,” said Stewart-Horan. “Call when you can, and text when you can’t."

RELATED: Things to know about text to 911.

Seminole and Osceola counties are also currently using text to 911 services within their city limits.

According to the Florida Department of Management Services website, other Central Florida counties have plans to implement the text to 911 technology. The most recent data shows Marion County has its installation in progress. Lake, Flagler, Volusia, and Brevard counties are expected to have similar systems in place this year, and Polk and Sumter counties have an estimated completion date of 2019.

Click here for a map of where text service is operational.

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