There’s a new way to reach 911 in Suffolk: text message

You can now text 911 during an emergency in Suffolk County.

The service, which has been in testing for several months, is now officially functioning. 

County Executive Steve Bellone said the program was implemented as a response to recent mass shootings, referencing the latest tragedy in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead in a synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

“As we see these terrible incidents playing out on our television screens, we recognize that a new reality exists out there,” Mr. Bellone said during the announcement at Suffolk County police headquarters in Yaphank last Thursday.

Officials said the service could help save lives during emergencies when making a phone call is not always feasible, such as an active shooter situation or a domestic violence incident.

“Seconds matter. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death,” Mr. Bellone said.

Individuals who are hearing or speech impaired may also benefit from the service, he said.

A text to 911 will go directly to one of 12 emergency call centers in the county, where a dispatcher can respond via text and dispatch local police to the location.

According to Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, texts to 911 must include an exact address and location and type of emergency.

“Be prepared to answer any questions that the 911 operator may text back. Use plain language; do not use abbreviations, symbols, emojis or photos,” Ms. Hart said in a statement.

The system cannot accommodate video or group texts either, the police commissioner said. Texts should be concise.

“If you can, as always, we strongly encourage you to please call 911,” she said. “That is the most efficient and fastest way to get help.”

Local police departments in Riverhead, Southold and Southampton are equipped to accept the service, for which testing began in July.

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said residents have already used the service.

“We have had texts from Spanish-speaking residents that were able to use Google Translate to communicate with us,” he said by email last Thursday.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said the service is a great idea.

“The way technology is going, it’s fantastic. You want your voice heard and it’s there if you need it,” he said Friday.

A spokesperson for the county executive said the service initially cost $72,000 to upgrade the county’s emergency infrastructure and carries an annual cost of $49,500, funded in part by surcharges on cellular users.

Earlier this year, the county began offering the RAVE smartphone app to schools and libraries across Suffolk County. The app features a panic button that can alert police to emergency situations, such as an active shooter.

Ms. Hart said police presence has increased at schools countywide and active shooter drills have been held in schools, banks, malls, hospitals and houses of worship.

“We have reached thousands of residents,” she said. “The tragic events in Pittsburgh are a stark reminder that we must remain vigilant.”

[email protected]