Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart announced the county's official launch of the "text-to-911" initiative on Thursday. The program allows residents to send a text message to 911 in emergency situations when it is either unsafe or they are unable to place a voice call. Credit: James Carbone

The Suffolk police department is now the largest in the state to implement technology that lets cellphone customers send a text message to a 911 call center during an emergency, county officials said Thursday.

At a news conference in Yaphank, County Executive Steve Bellone and police department brass touted the "text-to-911" program as a potential lifesaving technological advance.

Bellone said the program could prove vital during a domestic violence or active shooter situation when it is not safe to make a voice call. He pointed to Saturday's massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 worshipers dead.

"It may not be possible for somebody to make a call under those circumstances" Bellone said. "The ability to text during those emergency situations could mean the difference between life and death."

The technology also allows hearing- and speech-impaired individuals to easily contact 911 during a medical event, Suffolk Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said. In the past, the hearing- and speech-impaired had to use a TTY telecommunication device to reach police but those systems are typically fixed in private homes.

"This will level the playing field and give them access to emergency assistance," Cameron said, noting that in locations where cell service is sparse, text messages will occasionally go through, even if voice calls do not.

The Suffolk program officially began in late July, but Cameron said the department wanted to ensure the system was operating successfully with cellphone carriers.

An estimated 80 percent of 911 calls in the United States now come from smartphones, according to the National 911 Program, which is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Emergency Medical Services. 

The Suffolk program, funded through a surcharge on cellphone users, had an initial price tag of $72,000 and an annual cost of $49,500, Cameron said.

The system is simple to use but has its technological limitations, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said.

For example, during an emergency situation, any individual in Suffolk with a cellphone can simply text "911" and convey the nature of the emergency and their exact location. The cellphone user would then receive an automated response indicating the text was received.

The 911 text, Hart said, will be routed to one of the county's 12 emergency call centers. An emergency communications operator will then respond by text message and dispatch assistance to the location, she said.

But Hart said the system cannot yet accept group texts, photos or videos. Individuals should also not use abbreviations, symbols or emojis in their texts.

"Messages should be brief and concise," Hart said.

Those individuals who can make a voice call to 911 should continue do so, officials said, noting that text messages can lead to slower correspondence and delay an emergency response. 

"Call if you can and text if you can't," Cameron said.

In total, nearly 1,500 emergency call centers — about a quarter of all locations nationwide — have systems to accept text messages, according to data collected by the Federal Communications Commission. The figure was about 650 two years earlier.

A total of 15 of New York State's 62 counties have implemented the technology including Erie, Monroe, Rockland, Schenectady and Oneida, FCC data shows.

Last year, two New Yorkers with disabilities — including a woman from Babylon — who were unable communicate with 911 operators by telephone, filed a federal lawsuit accusing local governments of discrimination by denying them direct access to emergency services.

The suit, filed in the Eastern District in Central Islip, asked a federal judge to order Suffolk, Nassau and New York City to implement text-to-911 technology. That case is still pending.

Nassau plans to roll out a new phone system with text-to-911 capabilities in the coming months, said Det. Vincent Garcia, a police spokesman.

New York City pledged last year to implement a text-to-911 process for its vast 911 system during the first quarter of 2018. But the city's program has yet to get online. Stephanie Raphael, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which is overseeing the text-to-911 project, said she could not provide a new timeline for the rollout.

With Matthew Chayes

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