First responders from throughout Orange County Wednesday rolled out a new system allowing for text messages to 911.
A handful of emergency text messages had flowed in by early this afternoon. Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy told reporters that the first one was a medical aid call that was handled successfully.
The new service, which took about a year to implement, will help deaf and hearing-impaired residents or others "in situations where they can't call voice 911," Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said.
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The sheriff noted that about 80 percent of calls to 911 come from mobile phones, so adding a text service is in keeping with trends of usage.
Irvine Police Chief Mike Hamel noted that the first 911 call was in 1968, and that the texting service will have a "profound impact" on how first responders respond to emergencies.
"A call to 911 is always preferred, but we recognize that's not always possible," Hamel said. "Call 911 if you can, but text 911 if you can't."
Costa Mesa Fire Chief Dan Stefano also said calling 911 is still the best way to contact first-responders.
"There's nothing that will replace that voice-to-voice contact'' because the interaction between a trained dispatcher and caller is more easily coordinated through vocal dialogue, Stefano said.
Residents using the text service are encouraged to provide an address because zeroing in on the location through GPS technology isn't exact, with some carriers more accurate than others.
Renee Thomas, regional director of the Orange County Deaf Equal Access Foundation, said the service will be especially helpful to the hearing impaired because they can use it without help from someone else.
Barnes warned that bogus text messages to 911 will be treated just the same as calls to the emergency service, which are prosecuted as misdemeanors with jail time possible. A phony text can divert as much attention and time away from a real emergency as a phone call.
The service only accepts text messages, and if a photo or video is attached, it won't go through.