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News 13 Investigates: When texting 911 in the mountains, you may not get help

Buncombe's Emergency Operations Center got 175 texts in 2017, some false alarms, others domestic violence, shots fired, and wanted persons, plenty of examples where people couldn't call, but could text. The problem, even for 911 centers that can receive texts, it's not a perfect system. (Photo Credit: WLOS Staff)

For years, texting has been the preferred way to communicate. But in some parts of the mountains, if you try to text 911, you may not get the help you desperately need. In fact, in some counties, all you will get is a message back telling you to call.

Seventy-five percent of calls made to 911 are from a cell phone. But if you try to text 911, depending where you are, you may or may not get a dispatcher.

The need to text 911

Rey Castillo, of Asheville, says he likes his second job driving for Uber.

“If there's a request, it will flash,” Castillo says of the phone mounted on his dash.

Even his day job can have him driving a two-hour radius around town. All his time spent on the road sometimes has him dialing 911.

“If I see something unsafe out there, I know it's important to report these things. That's just trying to be a good citizen,” Castillo said.

In May 2017, a drunk and disorderly passenger had Rey texting 911.

“The passenger became somewhat agitated and uncomfortable because I wasn't responding to their questions. I was driving, came to a red light and felt really awkward. I just quietly texted to 911, and I pulled over into a gas station,” Castillo said.

Police were on the way when the confrontation started.

“The guy kind of grabbed my shirt and said, 'Hey,' and I told him again that I'm deaf, several times. Texting can sometime be safer than calling, depending on the situation,” Castillo said.

Because Rey's deaf, texting lets him talk to the dispatcher directly, versus relying on the interpreter used when he makes a phone call.

“At nighttime, I can't sign. There's not enough light in the car to do this,” Castillo said.

That is when having the ability to text 911 centers like Buncombe and Henderson counties comes in a little easier for Rey.

But texting 911 is not just for the deaf. Buncombe's Emergency Operations Center received 175 texts in 2017. Some were false alarms, others related to domestic violence, shots fired, and wanted persons -- plenty of examples where people could not call but could text.

The problem, even for 911 centers that can receive texts, is it's not a perfect system.

911, but no location

“Text 911, they don't automatically see your location,” Rey explained.

Here's the proof. News 13 crews texted Yancey County's 911 while standing inside the center on East Street. Dispatch supervisor Rachel Austin showed where the text appeared to originate from on their map.

“On Bill Island Branch right now, on the cell tower up there,” Austin said -- a good two miles from the actual location.

News 13 asked, “If you had to search through all of that to try and find me, that's a lot?”

“We wouldn't find you in time,” Austin answered simply.

“Anyone who texts 911 has to give us a location because we don't know where you're at,” Austin explained.

To receive texts for help, 10 mountain counties, including Cherokee, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, and Yancey, have adapted the old TTY or text telephone systems used for the deaf. But that means all they receive is what you type -- no pictures or location.

NextGen 911 roll out slow

“When we get the NextGen, we're supposed to be able to get pictures, video, and stuff like that,” Austin said.

The state has started upgrading the existing 911 systems from the 1960s. The digital upgrades will take two years. Upgrades started in September in Wake County.

“The technology has to catch up with it. We've kind of got the cart ahead of the horse,” Jeff Howell, Yancey County’s emergency management director, said.

Here in the mountains, where you cannot always make a cellular call, a text might get through when a call cannot because of the way they are transmitted, according to 911 emergency responders.

News 13 crews drove out to Egypt-Ramsey town with Howell. After several attempts, a text was finally sent even though a call still would not go through.

20 percent of NC 911 centers cannot get texts

In Polk County, it is a different story altogether. Both in the City of Tryon and the county, you won't reach help by texting 911. Instead, you will receive a message that instructs you to call. That is because Polk County’s 911 has not enabled access to text messages.

“They really need to speed up, that's my opinion. If I'm traveling in that area, I'm clueless which counties it's available and which counties it's not available,” Rey said.

Drivers say cellular carriers also need to step up by improving connectivity in poor service areas, like the Interstate 40 gorge.

“If there's no phone service there and a car breaks down and no service, that just means I'm sitting on the side of the road, maybe hours until someone shows up to help me,” Rey said.

About 20 percent of the state's 911 centers still do not get text messages, which is why every dispatcher says, even today, call if you can.

News 13 would like to extend a thank you to David Herman who provided ASL interpretation services for this story.

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Do you have something you want the I-team to investigate? Email us at iteam@wlos.com.

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