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The Memphis Police Department launches a new 911 texting system, Text-to-911

People in the Memphis area can now text 911 in the case of an emergency in which they cannot contact the police by phone call. 

Michael Spencer, the emergency communications administrator for the City of Memphis, originally created the system to assist those in the deaf, hearing and speech impaired communities.

“For years, we had equipment that allowed us to communicate with the deaf, hearing or speech impaired communities, but they had to rely on devices that were dependent upon landlines and copper phone lines equipment that just were not valuable to them,” Spencer said. “We usually referred them to the TDD telecommunications device for the deaf and we always been able to accept calls from those. We are a more mobile society. So the deaf or hearing community are out and about with their cellphones, and we knew they are mainly communicating through text with their friends and family.”   

The new feature was designed to help dispatchers locate someone by describing their reason for notifying the police.

Throughout the years, people in the deaf, hearing or speech impaired communities were only able to access 911 through the TDD service. The out-of-date specialized equipment was upgraded with those who inspired the new feature in mind. Spencer collaborated with others in trying to communicate their state of emergency.  

“The Memphis Police department, along with the Shelby County 911 (Shelby County Emergency Services), which is the district we fall in, had worked over this year to kind of get all of our equipment in place to allow text messages from any mobile device to come straight into our 911 system,” Spencer said. “So the deaf, hearing and impaired community were the drivers in motivating us, but the alternative use of it is that anybody that doesn’t feel they’re not in a safe situation can use it.”

The Text-to-911 is the first and only system in Tennessee to give Memphians another way to communicate their emergency to dispatchers. Within a year, Spencer worked with law enforcement and the Shelby County 911 team to develop a feature for users wanting to text versus calling in an issue. He also said he realizes the importance of reporting a problem from people in need of help.

“It is important for us to receive an emergency whether it’s calling or texting from anybody,” Spencer said. “The State of Tennessee has a statewide effort that has been going on for the past six years to bring the Text-to-911 to everyone in Tennessee. We just decided to do it on our own because a statewide project like that can be very delayed.”

Memphis’ Text-to-911 system is the first of its kind in the state. Spencer said he took advantage of the opportunity to design the feature for people to deliver a message by text.

Christin Brooks, a senior education major, said she thinks the new system could be accessible for University of Memphis students or faculty members on campus.

“It could be a faster way to contact the police and hopefully decrease crime, but I think further programs and security should be implemented,” Brooks said.

For some students, it would be easier to text rather than calling dispatch. Brooks said she is hoping it could be a new way to reduce crime in the UofM area. She also said she wants the the MPD to pay attention to certain things in resolving a crime being reported. 

“Be alert, trust your gut, don’t judge, and imagine if it were sister, brother, niece, nephew, mother, father, son or daughter,” Brooks said.

As of now, the Text-to-911 system cannot receive any group or photo-text messages while reporting an incident. The user must have a reliable mobile device provider in order to text their emergency. 

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