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Sonoma County now offers 911 texting in addition to calls in most areas

Most Sonoma County residents now have the option to text 911 in an emergency, as part of a new service intended to help people with certain disabilities or anyone who might not be able to safely call for help.

Police departments in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Healdsburg launched the service Tuesday to comply early with a state law requiring every public safety answering point to have a text option by Jan. 1, 2021.

Anyone who opts to text emergency dispatchers just has to enter “911“ as the recipient for their message. Police advised the first message should include the location of the emergency and the type of help needed such as police, fire or medical.

Brian Ambrosi, a dispatch supervisor for Santa Rosa Police Department, said the program has limitations, like no Spanish language translation. And given the realities of back-and-forth texting, it may lead to a slower response.

But it provides a clear benefit for community members who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability, as well as anyone who can’t safely call 911, he said.

Tips for texting 911

•Include clear information about the location of the emergency with the type of help needed (police, fire, or medical) in the first text message.

•Be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions from the call taker.

•Texts should be brief, easily understood, and should not contain abbreviations, emojis or slang.

•You cannot include 911 in a group text.

•Silence your phone if you don’t want to be heard.

•Do not text and drive.

•Prank texts can be identified and possibly prosecuted.

•Calling 911 in an emergency is still the preferred way to request help.

Source: Santa Rosa Police Department Nixle

“We wanted to make sure our deaf and hard-of-hearing community had access,” Ambrosi said. “In (dangerous) situations where you can’t speak out loud without alerting someone else, it’s going to useful.”

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s largest law enforcement agency, also launched the texting program this week. The Sheriff’s Office has contracts with Windsor and Sonoma, and polices unincorporated areas as well as the smaller communities around the county.

Cloverdale and Sebastopol are expected to launch the text service in the fall.

The service is not yet available for Spanish speakers, so if a text is sent in another language, the auto reply will say to call 911 so they can be helped with translation, Ambrosi said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation last year that added a fee to landlines and cellphone services in January that would net roughly $175 million in funding to help overhaul and modernize 911 call centers. Translation services for texting are part of the next-generation 911 suite the state is working on, Ambrosi said.

The ability to send photos or videos also will be part of the next phase of advancement, said Tina Thomsen, communications supervisor for the Petaluma Police Department.

Any 911 text that gets sent will bounce off the nearest cellphone tower and get redirected to the closest call center. There, a dispatcher will receive an audible alert and an active session will show up on the computer screen for a text exchange, Thomsen said.

There are several shortcomings to an emergency text, and area police are advising residents follow the rule “call if you can, text when you can’t.” GPS is not as reliable through texting, and calling provides real-time answers and information that could take several exchanges through text, Thomsen said.

Few, if any, residents have used the service since it launched, according to the dispatch supervisors in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. But Thomsen said the idea this option could help save someone’s life underscored its potential once the public learns more about it.

“We just need to be prepared for anyone who needs help,” Thomsen said. “This just opens the ability for so many more people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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