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Troubles with Text to 9-1-1

The other day I found myself reading another conglomeration of crazy text messages the sender didn’t mean to send and the receiver certainly didn’t want to receive. It’s not a secret that the proliferation of cell phones has changed the way we communicate with each other. Many people do not even own a landline in their homes anymore, and I found myself shocked recently when one of my co-workers told me she had to pay for her texts. I’m so ingrained in a world where unlimited text messages come as standard as the dial tone, and I’m not even part of this new generation that cut their teeth on technology we couldn’t even dream of 25 years ago. With current discussions debating how texting has changed the way people interact with each other and all the negatives that come with the positives of instantaneous, quick communication, the public safety telecommunications world sits poised to take on NG911.

Many public safety answering points already accept text to 911 and few have had any major issues with it. Policy seems to be written around public education campaigns informing community members when the appropriate time is to use text to 911, and when a call is a better choice. Non-traditional PSAPs such as those serving higher education jurisdictions believe text to 911 is the next logical step in allowing public safety to keep up with the way people communicate. Liz Phillips, Assistant Director at Kansas University Public Safety Office, explains that their jurisdiction doesn’t know how to use the phone, and because of this public safety needs to stay in front of their constituency when it comes to technology. With so much being discussed about what hardware, software and training needs to be done, it occurred to me that there is so much in texting that colors the conversation. Although most of the policy making revolves around serious issues, I can’t help but think about the lighter side of texting. My mind goes back to the mis-sent, misunderstood, and just plain mistakes that happen in the world of texting, mistakes that will soon be a part of public safety telecommunications.

Auto-correct

I can’t help but start with auto correct. Often these computer-corrected conversations have me laughing so hard I can’t breathe and I’m not alone. DamnYouAutoCorrect.com gets thousands of hits every day as people around the world revel in the awkward situations people find themselves in when their smart phone thinks it’s smarter than they are. I can envision it now:

(911 call via Text)

“911 what is your emergency?”

“I just saw flounder.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Not flounder…fire. My neighbor’s horse is on fire?”

“Horse?”

“House not horse. His house.”

“What is the address?”

“I live on Vagina and he’s right down the way.”

“???”

“Virginia! Virginia!

Ad infinitum. And we thought trying to decipher drunk was bad. I doubt anyone wants to see that public information request scrolling across the evening news screen, either. In all seriousness, someone needs to find a way to automatically turn off auto correct when dialing 911.

Shouty capitals

I know I can’t be the only one with a pet peeve about shouty capitals. YOU KNOW WHEN SOMEONE TYPES YOU A MESSAGE THAT READS LIKE THIS. It really doesn’t matter what the message says. I find myself having to consciously drop my shoulders back down from around my ears after reading it and start breathing again. It just feels angry to me. It’s hard to hear the message when I feel like I’m being yelled at. Sometimes people are yelling and sometimes they just don’t like to take the CAPS lock off. Either way, taking 911 calls are hard enough without adding subconscious shouting. It could go the other way around, too. A PSAP could be programmed so that the text messages they send out are in all capitals, making community members feel like they are being yelled at as well. I can just imagine the news conversation and then lawsuit over emotional distress because the 911 operator was so insensitive and MEAN.

Language

This category can encompass so many things, but the two major parts of language that texting will highlight most will be the Internet slang and the lack of ability to communicate the English language. Many of us are familiar with Internet slang, or cyber-jargon terms such as LOL, IMHO and ROFL, but what about TIA, RBTL and DGT? The language of texting is not one that everyone speaks, and there isn’t a language course that can be taken so that a 911 operator can keep up on the latest editions. Imagine some of our seasoned operators attempting to decipher a text to 911 with 90 percent cyber-jargon. He or she would have to send it to another, younger dispatcher or officer as an interpreter. This could definitely cause problems. Again, maybe technology could figure out a way to auto correct Internet slang into layman’s terms when it goes to 911. The other major part of language is the alarming inability to actually use the English language. Now I’m not going to comment on those who for whatever reason do not have a grasp on the language because of ethnicity, culture or primary language (although those could have their own problems) but mainly the horrific lack of spelling ability in much of our young population. Just because you have a smart phone does not mean that you passed 9th grade English. In all honesty, I think it is sad how some people can’t spell. But on the other hand, I don’t want to spend several minutes trying to decipher three sentences that could be standing in the way of someone living or dying. I know this sounds extreme, but these are the things I wonder about as we move forward with so many changes to the way we run our business.

Text to 911 will be a powerful tool. So many situations have occurred where this technology would have been an asset not only to the citizen, but also to the police. I’m an advocate of public safety getting back in front of commercial technology, especially since right now we have slipped so far behind.

On the other hand, I read more and more about how texting has stilted our ability to communicate with each other and know firsthand how the written word can sometimes be received much differently than the sender intended.

 

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University.

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