Texting 911 in emergencies coming soon

RICHLAND, Wash. -- Getting help during an emergency has always been done the same way: pick up the phone and call.

But what if there's an intruder in your house? Or you're hearing-impaired? Dispatch centers are now implementing the ability to text to 911.

In an age where LOLs and emoticons dominate person-to-person communication, emergency dispatchers are working to catch up.

"Any device, any time to 911," said Benton County Dispatch Supervisor Jim Barber.

It's the mantra of dispatchers statewide. Texting to your local dispatcher is next on their list.

The FCC said phones need to be ready to do it by the end of the month, but while your phone may be ready, the dispatch centers are still working.

Right now, if you were to send 911 a text message, you'd get a response that says 911 is not available, but by the beginning of next year, dispatch is hoping to be able to text you right back.

So far, only a handful of counties in the nation have the ability to communicate via text with dispatchers.

Barber says even when the system is up and running, dispatchers will still follow a strict protocol of "talk first, text second."

"One of the first questions we're going ask is, 'Can you safely call 911?,'" he said.

Dispatchers say their biggest fear is people who are so used to texting in acronyms and pictures, it could lead to confusion.

"The LOL and all these other acronyms to shorten - well, when it comes to an emergency, we can't have misunderstandings," Barber said. "It has to be precise."

All possible hiccups aside, Barber says having one more avenue to get help during an emergency is only going to keep you safer.

"Any advancement's a good tool," he said. If it can save one life, prevent property damage, major property damage, that's a benefit."

The next goal is to integrate streaming video, pictures and even car analytics like OnStar. Dispatchers will begin training on the new system as soon as it's ready.

Vermont is currently the only state where you can text 911.