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Residents can text 911 for emergencies in Winston-Salem, Forsyth County

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem and Forsyth County emergency help is now available by texting 911 in addition to making a voice telephone call.

The police and county 911 centers said people with cellphone service through AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon can use the texting 911 service if they have data or text plans.

“It is the next wave,” said Dan Ozimek, the director of emergency services in Forsyth County. “It is another avenue for someone to call and give a brief description of what is going on.”

In the near future, officials said, all wireless carriers will be required to provide the service.

The way to make an emergency call is to type 911 in the “To” field, along with a brief message that contains the location and the type of help needed.

To send a 911 text, the telephone must not be in roaming mode and must be within the range of a cell tower in the Winston-Salem and Forsyth County area. Otherwise, the person sending the text may receive a message to call 911 by telephone or that texting to 911 is not available.

Texting the location of an emergency is important because the 911 operators aren’t able to determine a cellphone’s location.

“That’s one of the drawbacks, so it is very imperative to get the location when we take this type of call,” said Herb Swaim, the county’s telecommunications supervisor. “We want to emphasize that this is not preferred method. We still want you to call if any way possible.”

Assistant Chief Scott Bricker of the Winston-Salem Police Department said situations come up in which people don’t want others to know that a 911 call is being made.

“There could be a hostage situation or other circumstances where people cannot make a telephone call,” Bricker said. “You might have a house break-in where you are afraid to talk and make noise. It is definitely a very valuable asset to render aid to people who are in need.”

The Winston-Salem Police Department, Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, a fire department or emergency medical services will be providing the emergency responses through texting.

The officials emphasized the importance of providing the location and type of emergency in the first text, and said that people should not use abbreviations and shorthand slang.

If 911 is sent a text message accidentally, the officials said, the person sending the text needs to quickly follow up with another text explaining the error.

Ozimek and Bricker said the technology is around the corner that will actually allow people to send pictures or videos to 911.

Ozimek said it remains to be seen how much the texting service will be used, but said the service is common in larger metropolitan areas.

“The only problem that could occur is if for example you are at a county borderline where it goes to the nearest cell tower,” Ozimek said. “You might pick up one in Stokes County and it would have to be transferred down to us. We are going to have to wait and see.”