With text-to-911 active, domestic violence coalition to launch texting for hotlines

The state last week became one of few that allow residents to text 911 — a capability the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence soon will roll out for its own hotlines.

In announcing the program, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said texting could be useful during home invasions, domestic violence situations or mass shootings. It also could help those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have trouble speaking, whether temporarily or because of a chronic condition.

“There are emergency situations where a voice call to 911 is neither possible nor safe,” Malloy said. “The safety and security of our residents is a top priority and this is an important innovation that will indubitably save lives.”

911.gov doesn't list how many states have the technology available statewide but says almost 1,000 dispatch centers nationwide allow texting.

Officials cautioned residents to text 911 only when necessary, as calling is a faster way to get help.

Speaking by phone Tuesday, Safe Futures Executive Director Katherine Verano said she was surprised the technology wasn’t launched sooner.

“I feel like we should have been here three years ago,” said Verano, whose New London-based nonprofit offers counseling, court support services, support groups and an emergency shelter to those impacted by domestic violence or sexual assault. “But I understand the challenges ... of determining, how does that look? How do (dispatchers) handle calls, plus respond to text messages?"

Ruby York, president of AFSCME Local 1303-478 in Ledyard, said it's too soon to say whether the new technology will unduly burden dispatchers, though she said some smaller dispatch centers are concerned.

"There's good and bad," said York, who has worked as a dispatcher in Ledyard for 19 years and served American Ambulance for seven years before that.

Texting, she said, is more time consuming than talking and takes away a dispatcher's ability to interrupt a person who isn't giving pertinent information.

"I think it will slow down the response," she said. "That said ... for domestic violence or people who can't talk, it's a great thing, and moving into new technology is a thing of the future we have to get used to."

York said her center began training that included text tests and an online course about four-and-a-half months ago.

"Because it's new, we haven't received any calls via text," York said. "It's hard to judge (the impact) until we have an active situation where we're taking more than one call" via text.

Verano has heard her own colleagues having similar conversations as the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence prepares to allow texting for its hotlines. Safe Futures is a member of CCADV, an organization that supports 18 domestic violence agencies in the state through training, funding and advocacy.

Karen Jarmoc, president and CEO of CCADV, said the idea to add texting came out of a survey that asked domestic violence survivors how they prefer to access help and what information they want.

"If they can have multiple options in terms of how to access help, that is the optimal situation," Jarmoc said.

Jarmoc said CCADV is piloting a texting option for its Spanish hotline next month and plans to launch it on the English hotline in early 2019.

"The good news is we're not doing something that’s not been tested before," she said. "The national hotline already does texting for help. We’re looking to that model and some other states to understand their lessons learned."

Jennifer Keatley, director of United Cerebral Palsy of Eastern Connecticut, said she expects the ability to text dispatchers will help people with disabilities including deafness, autism and cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that can cause muscle stiffness and difficulty speaking.

"It's just one additional way that technology has made things more inclusive," said Keatley, whose Waterford-based organization serves people with a spectrum of disabilities.

Dispatchers might not be able to understand people with cerebral palsy, or might assume they're intoxicated, United Cerebral Palsy's disability support coordinator Shannon Taber said Tuesday. Texting can eliminate those misunderstandings, she said.

"This is a lot easier than having someone think you're drunk," Taber said. "You don't know their ethnicity, you don't know ... their disability. The texter can give that information when it's necessary, rather than have conclusions drawn based on their speech."

Many people with impaired speech use a device that converts text to speech over the phone or have access to an operator system that will read texts to the person on the other end of a call. They often have to text a friend who can call 911 for them.

"This kind of cuts out the middleman and puts them in direct contact with emergency responders," Taber said. "With the 911 text feature, 'Help, I've fallen,' is a simple text."

Day Staff Writer Martha Shanahan contributed to this report.

l.boyle@theday.com

How to use text-to-911 and reach CCADV

To use text-to-911, enter the numbers “911” in the “to” or “recipient” field on a mobile phone or other handheld device. Text a brief message that includes the location of the emergency and what services are needed (police, fire, ambulance). After that, answer questions and follow instructions from the 911 call center. 

For more information, visit www.Text911CT.org.

To reach the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence's English hotline call (888) 774-2900 or to access the Spanish hotline call (844) 831-9200.

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