Officials: If you can speak, don’t text your 911 emergency

Day shift watch deputy Michelle Roberts works at the dispatch office at the Santa Clarita Sheriff's Station in Valencia on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. Nikolas Samuels/The Signal
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The 911 dispatchers at the Santa Clarita Sheriff’s Station haven’t yet received an emoji on their newly introduced 911 text-messaging system. However, countywide, officials are reporting common misunderstandings with the new system that can create problems for emergency operators who rely on an ability to answer and address as many calls as possible as quickly as they safely can.

Sworn officers on the front line of life-and-death emergencies in the Santa Clarita Valley have a simple message for 911 texters: “Unless you are unable to speak, call 911. Don’t text,” watch Deputy Michelle Roberts, of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, told The Signal during a visit to the station’s dispatch room.

Taking seconds to respond to bogus emergencies that are texted in ultimately steals time away from real life-and-death emergencies where every second counts.

And in the SCV, where dispatchers fielded 500 calls for service on Wednesday, every second used texting back and forth to SCV dispatchers becomes crucial.

Two weeks ago, the SCV Sheriff’s Station launched a system that allows the public to text in a 911 emergency call.

The system was intended as an alternative for people who cannot speak.

Since the launch, however, dispatchers have responded to several text messages sent to merely test the system.

“We get texts that say simply ‘test’ or ‘testing, testing testing,’ so if someone texts us with an emergency, our time is used up with responding to the ‘test’ text,” Roberts said.

Comm Center

Inside the cool, darkened room behind one-way tinted glass, three deputies sit in front of a bank of monitors answering the calls that come into the station.

A visit to the communications center Thursday at noon was typical, Roberts said.

There were seven emergencies reported on the 911 phone line Thursday morning — for calls such as traffic collisions and domestic disputes wherein “someone’s life is in danger,” she said.

And, although the dispatchers acknowledged most people understand and respect the 911 emergency system, they each point to disappointing horror stories of phoned-in abuses of the system over the years.

“The most common (phone abuse) is people calling 911 because they’re stuck in the McDonald’s Drive-Through,” said Law Enforcement Technician Julie Ibrahim. “You name it, we’ve gotten a call on it.”

What they don’t want to see is the same type of abuse develop with 911 texts.

“A lot of the (phone) calls we receive begin with ‘I don’t really have an emergency but…,’” she added.

The most dangerous abuse of phoned-in calls to the 911 line are the report of “fake emergencies,” Roberts said, or untruthful reports.

Officials are able to prosecute  (for abuse of the 911 system), “When someone calls in with a fake emergency, reporting say that someone was beaten up,” Roberts explained. “We start a full response, code 3. So this fake emergency is risking their safety.

“It is a giant waste of resources,” she said.

Texting 911 with non-emergencies is particularly problematic in that it takes more time for operators to text messages back and forth.

When to text 911

All that said, sheriff’s officials set up the 911 text message system for a reason.

“It’s great to have the option of texting,” Shirley Miller, spokeswoman for the SCV Sheriff’s Station, said. “If you’re hiding in a closet from an attacker and don’t want to be heard, text.

“In cases of domestic violence, if you don’t want your significant other to know where you are, you can text,” she added.

“And, one of the other reasons why we want to keep texting for appropriate uses is because with our new system, we did not get another dispatcher to handle texts,” she added.

And, there’s one other request 911 dispatchers have for the public at large — don’t give your old cellphones to your toddlers for a toy.

Even with no phone service, a discarded cell phone with a powered battery can still dial 911, officials said.

“We get a ton of those calls,” Ibrahim said, probably from babies and toddlers.

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