People who need emergency services in the metro Phoenix area have a new way to ask for help: via text message.
After spending $150,000 on software updates and dispatcher training, the Maricopa Association of Governments launched text-to-911 capabilities Monday.
"There were other ways that people who were deaf or hard of hearing were able to communicate (with 911), but it wasn’t catching up with technology," Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said at a news conference Monday. "It wasn’t convenient.
"This is where society is going, and we want to provide the very best public-safety services to everyone," Stanton said.
“As a speaking deaf individual, this will allow me to reach out for services and know the first responders will receive the correct information and respond.”
Terri Guy, a Tempe resident.
Disability-rights advocates have pushed for text-to-911 service in the U.S. for years, arguing traditional emergency-dispatch systems put residents with speech, hearing and other disabilities at risk. But because the service isn't mandatory — and upgrades are costly — agencies have been slow to adopt it.
Until Monday, Lake Havasu City was the only Arizona municipality to offer a text option.
In 2016, the Arizona Center for Disability Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of three deaf and hard-of-hearing Arizonans, charging state and local agencies with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing text-to-911. It said "individuals with disabilities may be severely injured or die, or suffer additional injury or property loss due to the inability to access 911" in most of the state.
'Grateful' for the changes
A poster at the April 2, 2018, launch of text-to-911 service in metro Phoenix illustrates a situation where a resident might text 911 instead of calling. (Photo: Maria Polletta/The Republic)
Two of the plaintiffs in that suit spoke at Monday's launch.
"As a speaking deaf individual, this (text-to-911 upgrade) will allow me to reach out for services and know the first responders will receive the correct information and respond," said Terri Guy, a Tempe resident.
Guy previously told The Arizona Republic she'd struggled to request emergency medical or law-enforcement help on at least three occasions, because she couldn't hear the dispatchers on the other end of the line.
The new service "sends a powerful message of empowerment to hard-of-hearing, deaf, speech-impaired persons and people who may find themselves in imminent danger," Guy said.
Norbert Enos, a Surprise resident who is deaf and communicates through American Sign Language, said he was "very grateful" for the changes.
"I did have the opportunity to test the system in three different cities last week…in Surprise, Sun City and the city of Phoenix," he said through an interpreter. "I was able to test the system and got a very quick reply. Communication was very smooth."
Not just for people with disabilities
Arizonans without disabilities can also benefit from statewide text-to-911.
"This capability can be useful to anyone who can’t speak out loud without putting themselves in danger, such as a homeowner hiding in a closet from a burglar or a domestic-violence victim who doesn’t want an abuser to overhear their 911 call," Stanton said.
"Or think about an active shooter situation, where people are trying to contact rescuers without announcing their location," he said.
The system does have limits: For now, metro Phoenix dispatch centers don't offer translation services for texts sent in languages other than English. They also can't determine where a text is coming from unless the texter provides a location.
For those reasons, and because dispatchers can more quickly ask questions on voice calls, public-safety officials still encourage anyone safely able to call 911 to do so.
Those who need to text 911 should keep messages concise, provide an exact location and the nature of the emergency in the first message, and avoid text abbreviations, officials said.