Pols push to add texting to 911 system

August 14, 2015 Meaghan McGoldrick
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A number of local politicians are calling on the city to upgrade its current emergency communications system to allow New Yorkers to text 911 in times of crisis – something some New Yorkers say should have been a long time coming.

Brooklyn Councilmember Laurie Cumbo joined Councilmembers Mark Levine (Manhattan) and Vanessa Gibson (Bronx) on Thursday, August 13 to introduce the bill which was originally conceived by Cumbo – who also serves as chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues – as a means to support both victims and survivors of domestic violence.

“As we enter the next generation of technology, we must ensure that our city’s emergency response system remains in pace and is equipped to connect all New Yorkers with the assistance they require,” said Cumbo, who represents the areas of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bed-Stuy. “The implementation of an emergency mobile text system can help reduce the fear that often prevents thousands of New Yorkers from seeking help.

“The ability to send photos and video via text will aid police officers with critical information to deter or address criminal activity,” she went on. “Additionally, this bill would help expand our capacity to better communicate with youth, LGBTQ, legal and undocumented immigrants, the deaf, hearing or speech impaired, and mute communities.”

If signed into law, the bill – formally known as Intro 868 – would give the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) just six months to upgrade its current system so that the public may send digital documents including text messages, videos and photographs – and only one year to get it up and running (or, at the very least, to report back with a start-date).

Several counties and emergency contact offices in upstate New York have a similar system already in place.

“It doesn’t make sense for us not to have the kind of technology to be able to text 911 for help,” Jason Hazell told this paper, noting that the only problem he can foresee is possible pranksters, a downside he believes would be greatly outweighed by the increase in lives saved. “In most situations that are dangerous, especially if you’re being threatened with violence, saying anything out loud at all is going to put you in danger.”

“I am absolutely for it,” added Victoria Spinelli of Marine Park, citing a viral news story from May of this year in which a woman in Florida – unable to voice her fear to a 911 dispatcher – instead included a call for help in the comment section of her online Pizza Hut order. “If you are hiding in a closet because you’re about to get abducted, I think it’s a great option to be able to text silently that you are in danger and need assistance.”

The upgrade, she said, might also help the dispatchers.

“There’s a format of reporting that 911 operators want you to call in with. If you are panicked, you may take longer to convey your message clearly, whereas our society today is so much more comfortable via text and e-mail.”

Bensonhurst resident Lauren Epifanio agreed, posing the question, if a character from the 1996 horror movie “Scream” can call 911 from a computer, why can’t she?

“I definitely support this bill,” she said. “It’s 2015. Let’s step it up.”

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