Carl Leighton, dispatch supervisor, demonstrates the new program that allows people to text 911 instead of calling them. Leighton said this can be helpful in situations where calling 911 for help isn’t possible.
Carl Leighton, dispatch supervisor, demonstrates the new program that allows people to text 911 instead of calling them. Leighton said this can be helpful in situations where calling 911 for help isn’t possible. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Stinson) VIEW ORIGINAL

Late last year, a visitor to Redstone Arsenal became disoriented in the woods and couldn’t find their way out. Thanks to new geofencing technology, their call to 911 allowed emergency responders to quickly locate the individual, thwarting a potential tragedy.

The Marshall Space Flight Center Joint 911 Emergency Dispatch Center on Redstone Arsenal has answered emergency calls for more than a decade. Recent technology upgrades ensure the installation’s emergency responders arrive at the right place – the first time, Deputy Fire Chief Robert Simmons said.

Geofencing marries GPS and other technologies to identify a caller’s location and route cell calls that originate on the installation to the Redstone Arsenal-based call center. Additionally, the center now has Text-to-911 capability.

“Before we had geofencing, we always told newcomers that if they had to dial 911 from their cell phone, to make sure they told the operator they were located on Redstone Arsenal,” Simmons said.

While calls from the Arsenal’s 80,000-plus land lines were always routed to the J911 Center, before geofencing it was up to Madison County 911 operators to route cell phone calls from Redstone Arsenal to the J911 center.

The Text-to-911 service also adds a new dimension to emergency response, Simmons said.

“Text ability can be crucial for the deaf, hard of hearing or those who can’t speak. It’s also a lifeline for situations where it’s not safe to place a voice call, like an active shooter or other emergency,” he said.

The rule of thumb is, “call when you can, text when you can’t,” said Michael Wilson, chief of Protection Services at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. He advised that texts to 911 should only be used in emergencies and warned that it’s a crime to unjustifiably text or call 911 and that prank-texters can be identified.

Texts to 911 are limited to 140 characters, so Wilson’s advice is to keep it simple. “Text in simple words, without abbreviations or slang.”

“Texters should also be prepared to answer questions and follow instructions from the 911 call taker,” Wilson said.

The installation’s J911 center answered nearly 53,000 calls last year, 1,500 of which were 911 calls.

Prior to the joint 911 venture, leaders from the Garrison and Marshall Space Flight Center began discussing the cost of running duplicative emergency call centers that were staffed around the clock.

The two organizations signed a service agreement in October 2011 establishing a joint governance council and the J911 took its first calls shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 2012.