McLennan County residents have a new option at their fingertips for getting help in emergency situations.

The McLennan County Emergency Assistance District publicly unveiled its text-to-911 campaign Tuesday after training with about about 90 dispatchers at 911 call centers in the county. District Executive Director Jesse Harrison said four major wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — have implemented technology that allows people in emergency situations to text 911 for help if a call is not an option or could put them in more danger.

“The nationwide slogan has always been ‘Call if you can. Text if you can’t,’ and in Texas for those who have implemented this new technology, we urge people to call if they can but text if they can’t,” Harrison said. “I am really excited for this to not only help out hearing or speech impaired residents, but also those who find themselves in emergency situations where they can’t make a 911 call.”

By texting 911, residents will be put through to local dispatchers who can coordinate emergency services and response. Dispatchers will be able to sent texts back, just like in a normal exchange.

“We are not targeting a younger generation per se, but we are targeting the deaf, hard of hearing, those who can’t speak or those whose lives are in danger if they had to call 911,” Harrison said. “Calling is still the best and fastest way to reach emergency services, but residents can now text 911 if that is the only option.”

It took about two months to train local dispatchers and to coordinate how texted requests for help would be transferred between call centers, said Joanne Gilliam, the district’s training and public education coordinator. Officials have been working on bringing the capability to the county for more than a year.

Every county in the Heart of Texas Council of Governments, which includes Bosque, Falls, Freestone, Hill, Limestone and McLennan counties, is now set up with text-to-911 capability, Gilliam said.

“A lot of dispatchers were apprehensive at first, but once they saw it and went through training, dispatchers realized that it was just another way of taking a call,” Gilliam said. “After communication is established, it is always helpful to put the address the texter is at so we can get the needed emergency personnel to them for whatever situation.”

Emojis, photos, videos and other multimedia content is not able to be sent to 911 services, Harrison said. He said any abuse of text-to-911 services would be prosecuted just like any abuse of other 911 services.

Harrison said texters in their first message should provide the address where emergency services are needed.

Residents can expect to see an educational campaign about the new feature and its use in advertisements at local movie theaters this weekend. A billboard campaign is scheduled to debut next week.

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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