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Behind the City of Mesa's 'Text to 911' program

Posted at 7:02 PM, Aug 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-28 08:54:30-04

It's a new way to call for help, and it's already saving lives across the Valley.

In the City of Mesa, communications staff members said they've seen anywhere from 40 to 50 text messages come in to their 911 system in the three months since the program began.

Some of those text messages came from people who were unable to call for help, but they were able to type a message.

"There has been domestic violence situations, there have been suicidal subjects, there have been prowlers where people don't feel comfortable talking because they don't want the people outside to be able to hear them," said Tracy Winfrey, a 911 operator in the City of Mesa.

Winfrey said like all dispatchers, her goal was to help people in her community. She said she wanted to give the community the option to be able to text for help and open more doorways to help save lives in the community.

RELATED: Peoria starts 'Smart911' program to help save lives

"You can't do this job if you don't want to help people," said Winfrey.

Mesa police shared some text message calls for help they have received with ABC15.

One was from a person who texted "please help me." In the second text, the person said: "someone is in my house."

Winfrey explained that as soon as someone texts 911, within seconds, it would appear on the screen of every operator on the job.

"It will flash on the screen. You will hear an alert, an audible alert, so we know it is there," said Winfrey.

Mesa police allowed ABC15 to put the system to the test. We noticed our text appear on the dispatch computer screen in less than three seconds.

The response typed in by the operator showed up on our phone in the same amount of time.

In the previous example from the person who believed there was an intruder in the home, the dispatcher asked the person texting if there were any weapons. The person responded that they did not know but they saw two women and a man. The person was told that help was on the way.

Dispatchers said they always prefer a phone call if possible, and say you should text only if are unable to call.

RELATED: Smartphone technology gives you a voice during emergencies when you can't speak

"Calling in is always faster so if you are able to call we definitely want you to call. If you can only text, please just answer all of our questions," said Winfrey.

The number one question an operator would want to know from you is your address. Right now the technology is unable to trace a text message to a location. The department would have to reach out to the phone company to get that information which could delay getting you help.

Mesa is among the cities that received the Desert Peaks award by the Maricopa Association of Governments for a successful implementation of the 'Text to 911' program.  

Officials said every agency in Maricopa County now has the technology in place, including Apache Junction.

RELATED: You can text 911 for help anywhere in Maricopa County 

Pinal County does not have the system in place.  A spokesperson for the Sheriff's department said they were "in the process of looking at options," but they did not have a timeline as to when it would be up and running yet.

Currently, the system is only available in English and cannot handle group texts. Officials say Maricopa County received the new system last August for $150,000.

How to text 911:

- Type in 9-1-1 in the "To" field
- ALWAYS provide your exact location and nature of your emergency in the initial message
- Push the "Send" button
- Be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions from the 911 operator