Yakima Co. dispatchers seeing more people texting 911 when it’s not safe to call

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Yakima County emergency dispatchers are seeing an increase in people texting 911 in situations where calling could put them in danger, especially when someone is violating a domestic violence no-contact order.

“People just don’t feel comfortable talking because that person that isn’t supposed to be there is there and for their safety, they can’t make that phone call,” SunComm Yakima 911 public safety communications manager Erica McNamara said.

The city’s emergency dispatchers have seen the number of texts to 911 more than double in the past six months, from 45 to 50 in January to about 100 in July.

McNamara said while the overall number of people using the service remains low, that’s likely because many people still don’t know they can text 911 — despite the service being available in Yakima County for the past five years.

For most emergencies, dispatchers prefer people to call because being able to hear what’s going on around the caller can give them more information about the emergency at hand.

However, McNamara said there are situations where texting 911 might be the safest or only option, including if:

You are the victim of a crime or have witnessed a crime, but the perpetrator is within hearing distance. McNamara said this situation comes up most frequently for domestic violence victims who are reporting someone for violating a no-contact order.

You are hiding from an imminent threat to your safety and don’t want to give away your location. If you believe someone has broken into your home, you find yourself in an active shooter situation or are presented with another threat where you feel hiding is your best option, making any kind of noise — including calling 911 — could bring the danger right to you. Texting 911 is a way to get the emergency help you need quickly and quietly.

You are having a medical emergency that makes it difficult to speak or hear. If you are having a medical emergency and you’re short of breath, find yourself unable to speak or are experiencing temporary disorientation or hearing loss that would make a phone call difficult, texting 911 is an option.

You are uncomfortable speaking over the phone because of a language barrier. McNamara said they do have bilingual 911 dispatchers to take phone calls, but can receive texts from people who are more comfortable texting in their native language or whose primary language is not English or Spanish and might require additional translation.

You are in an area with spotty cell phone coverage. There are some places in Yakima County, especially in rural areas, where no cell phone service is available whatsoever. However, there’s usually a stretch between spots with full coverage and spots with no coverage where you can get a text out, but can’t get a phone call to go through. If someone goes missing on a camping trip, is in need of a water rescue or has been seriously injured in the woods and needs medical help, you might be able to get enough of a signal to send a text before you can get someone on the line at all or for long enough to get the information across without the call dropping.

“You can use it in any situation where you can’t talk or you don’t feel safe talking,” McNamara said.

Anyone texting 911 to avoid making noise should check to make sure the volume on their phone is all the way down and that it’s on silent with any vibration turned off. If you have an LED flash set up for alerts, make sure it’s disabled.

“It works just like you would text anyone else,” McNamara said. “You would enter 911 without any dashes or spaces and type your message and we receive it very similar to like an IM message on a computer.”

McNamara said they are not equipped to receive photos, videos or other media at this time and they also will not receive location data with a text to 911 like they would for a phone call.

McNamara said that’s why it’s important for your first text to have the most crucial information — your location and what kind of emergency you’re dealing with — in case you’re only able to send one message.

“If you can’t respond, we understand that, but it’s really helpful for you to frontload as much as data as you can, so we know where you need help and what kind of help you need,” McNamara said.

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