Camden County's ability to accept 911 text messages this summer will lead the state with a technology advance that will better protect residents, officials said.
"This is not a replacement to the ability to call. It's another option," said Freeholder Scot McCray. "I think it's going to help every community in Camden County."
Supporters say the text service would be useful to those with speech or hearing problems, or could prove crucial in circumstances - such as a burglary - where individuals are hiding and afraid to speak while seeking help.
The Board of Freeholders unanimously approved the plans last week for the 911 text message upgrade for the county Communications Center, which routes calls to local police and fire departments. Authorities hope to have it operating by July.
County dispatchers will be the first in the state to have the capability to read text messages, answer them, and determine the caller's location, authorities said. Those who may benefit could include accident victims who may not know their location.
Previously, a caller's approximate location was determined by the cellular tower that routed the call. The new technology will let dispatchers identify the exact location for phones equipped with global positioning software.
The county's plan comes as the Federal Communications Commission is encouraging officials across the nation to upgrade emergency systems to receive text messages by 2014. Costs have kept progress slow.
"It's a big deal," said Monica Gavio of the National Emergency Number Association in New Jersey, which advocates emergency technology advances. The association also supports legislation that would provide matching federal funds for the upgrades.
Gavio said she thought Camden County was the only jurisdiction in the state to approve the system.
"It's critical for a person who may not be able to speak," Gavio said. "We've been working on getting this ability for quite some time."
The Camden County text upgrade will cost about $600,000 and is part of a $35 million overhaul of the entire communications system, authorities said.
Gavio said younger people, some more adept at texting, may not realize that 911 dispatchers cannot receive their messages. In some circumstances, people can still send and receive messages even if they lose phone reception, as was the case with some Hurricane Sandy victims.
"It's still most beneficial to call 911 so that our trained call-takers can obtain important information quickly," McCray said. "In certain circumstances, this is a valuable alternative to using the phone."
Local police officials said they are waiting to hear how the upgrade will affect police service.
"Anything to help keep the public safe is a good idea," said Cherry Hill Chief Rick Del Campo. Cherry Hill employs its own dispatchers, but calls are routed through the communications center in Lindenwold.