Text messaging has completely changed the way people talk to one another. But little has been done to elevate the technology beyond simple communication purposes.
The University is hoping a new initiative will change all that.
In a statement set to be released later today, the University’s Department of Public Safety will announce a new number, DPS 911 — or 377911 for Blackberry users — that students, faculty and community members can text to report a crime, specifically for situations where making a phone call may be unsafe.
DPS Director Ken McGee wrote in the statement that he hopes the new initiative will allow DPS officers to take quicker action on a reported crime.
“Ultimately,” McGee wrote, “we hope crime can be reduced.”
DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown said that calling in to report a crime is still the preferred method, but DPS will immediately respond to any text messages it receives.
When a message is sent to the number, an alarm will flash on the computer screen of every on-duty officer, and the text message will show up on the screen, Brown said. One officer then takes ownership of the message and begins a text communication with the victim to find out more details of the situation.
“Since the text messages need to be short, we’re hopeful our community members will only use the system for crimes or emergencies in progress,” McGee wrote in the statement.
The initiative originally came from University alum Tim Bekkers, who proposed a text messaging plan to McGee last spring.
Bekkers, who was an LSA senior at the time of the proposal, argued that if DPS could send text messages to students, then why couldn’t that line of communication be opened up on both ends, allowing students to send messages to DPS.
Bekkers said there are two instances where reporting a crime through text message would be more useful than calling in.
“This is particularly important in cases where you don’t want to give away your location, because text messaging is silent,” Bekkers said. “Imagine either witnessing a normal crime you’d like to report, or one infinitely worse, like, God forbid, a Virginia Tech situation. You should be able to report a crime without giving up your own personal safety.”
Bekkers also noted that the new service would allow students with hearing or speaking disabilities to communicate with DPS for help.
“Most deaf and hard-of-hearing students carry cell phones to text message with people,” he said. “Now they can easily communicate with DPS, too.”
Currently, there are only a couple of other locations across the United States that have a text messaging number to signal for help.
In June 2007, the Boston Police Department launched a program, called “Text a Tip,” where citizens can anonymously text a tip about a crime.
However, as with any form of technology, this system is not entirely perfect.
One major concern is that the victim’s cell phone provider fails to properly forward the emergency message to DPS.
For this reason, there are a select few carriers in which this number will not work. Certain prepaid phones, especially those through Metro PCS, or phones without a text messaging plan are unable to use the system.
Also, the University had to ensure the carriers understood the severity of these messages.
“What we understand now, most uses of those text numbers have been up to this point for people to do more marketing-related things, not necessarily emergency messaging,” Brown said. “An additional challenge was to have the providers understand the urgent nature of these messages.”
Overall, Brown said DPS expects the new service to have excellent results, noting that shortly after it was unofficially announced at the football game this past Saturday, someone text-messaged a problem occurring in his or her section. DPS was able to send help to the location and resolve the situation.