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Tazewell County residents can text 911 in 2023

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With the new year, longtime residents and those just passing through Tazewell County have a new way to get in touch with 911.

Since Jan. 1, the Tazewell County Emergency Telephone System Board and Tazewell County Consolidated Communications Center implemented Text to 911, a new service allowing people in situations, where they can’t safely talk on the phone, to text police for help.

This will work for residents as well as anyone passing through, inside the Tazewell County border.

“Obviously, we always encourage people to dial into 911 when possible, but it's just another tool in the tool chest for us,” said 911 coordinator Michael McIntyre. “And it's something for the public to be able to use in the event that they don't feel like they can comfortably speak to an operator, or it can be used really easily for our hearing impaired.”

However, McIntyre does said for most situations, you should probably still call 911 if you’re able.

“It's not as accurate as voice calls are. So, you know, obviously, if you can call, please call,” he said. “But if you can't, you’re in a situation where you can't, obviously domestic violence or a situation where you don't feel comfortable talking, this is just a great alternative to get help to you.”

For example, McIntyre said any medical emergency wouldn’t be a good fit for texting, when the caller can talk, and police need geolocation data quickly. The service also only works through texting on a cell phone with a plan that includes text messaging.

That includes every major carrier, including ones like Cricket and Boost Mobile, said McIntyre. However, third-party methods, like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger, will only prompt an error response from the system. It also won’t work for a group text.

Bringing the new system online required a lot of testing to make sure McIntyre and his team weren’t missing any ways it could “break.”

“Obviously we don't want to put something out here like this and then have somebody call us and say, 'I tried texting and my phone won't let me,'” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had all those bugs taken out, before we brought it live to the public.”

He said getting the system implemented in the county was a long process, starting with a push for consolidated emergency communication at a state level in 2017.

“You don't realize what we do, what happens on the backside of a 911 call,” said McIntyre. “You just dial the number, and now you can text.”

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.