Local officials note calling 911 remains best option in most cases

By Hope Rudzinski
Citizen Chronicle Intern

“Call if you can; text if you can’t.”

That’s the new motto sweeping across Massachusetts police stations, with respect to the new 911 texting system, which went into effect in December.

Texting? You read that right. Texting has been the go-to mode of correspondence between people and is now a tool to communicate emergencies.   Local police chiefs and dispatchers emphasize, however, that while voice calls to 911 are the most effective and fastest way to contact emergency services, texting 911 can be used when a victim can’t speak in a high-stress situation, or if a person has a hearing problem.

How it works: A person experiencing an emergency texts a message to 911, and a responder then texts back a message that asks for the person’s basic information and what type of situation they are in.  

Responders must have a full text-based conversation with a victim before help can arrive, according to Dudley Police Dispatcher Gregory Lyskey.

“The location system isn’t as strong pin-pointing your location as if you would call, but if you can’t call, then text,” he said. “The help for the victim increases because we must text back (to determine their location).” 

Dudley Police Chief Steven Wojnar cautioned that the new texting system isn’t to be taken casually.

“I hope this new tool will be properly used and not taken advantage of,” said Chief Wojnar, who is president of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association. “We haven’t had anyone use the new system yet, but it’s good use of technology in case a person is ever in a situation where they can’t call. Talking person-to-person helps, of course. I just don’t want to see the younger generation use this as an everyday tool to communicate danger.”

Said Oxford Police Chief Anthony Saad: “We haven’t received any text messages yet, however this service is a great tool for victims who may be in violent situations where speaking isn’t a choice, such as a domestic, home break-in, and hostage situations.”  

If one attempts to send a text to 911 where the service is not available, an automatic “bounce back” message will be sent that will advise the texter to contact emergency services by another means, such as making a voice call.

“Most systems haven’t been used yet, however I actually dealt with a party who was lost in the woods recently,” said Sturbridge Police Dispatcher Scott Belanger. “They couldn’t make a call, so they decided to text 911. My team and I connected to the group of boys who were lost, and we were able to keep talking through text to find out their location. We got them out of woods safely.”  

When traveling and/or in a certain situation where calling or texting isn’t possible, sending a photo or video could one day be helpful to emergency dispatchers.

“There will be advancements in the next couple years,” said Belanger. “We are hoping to get an upgrade to allow for videos and pictures to be sent. It’s only an SMS (short messaging system) for now.”  

Texting 911 may indeed be beneficial use of modern technology, but emergency personnel still recommend an old-fashioned voice call, if possible.

“Always call if you can, and text if you can’t,” said Chief Wojnar. “We want people to get help when they need it. If texting instead of calling helps, it’s a great tool to use.”  

Southbridge Police Dispatcher Paul Soojian agreed.

“It’s a challenge, but this is what the future will be,” he said. “It’s very early to see what this will become, and we are still in training, however people need to know that texting 911 should be seen as a last-resort opportunity.

“I’m excited that there is a new tool for people to use and to see where this goes,” added Soojian.  

Hope Rudzinski is a junior at Nichols College in Dudley, where she works as a public relations intern.

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