Text Messages and Public Health: Can They Remove Barriers for "Calling" 9-1-1?

Text messages are a great time saver. You do not have to have a long conversation with someone...instead you can just send a quick message like "I made it home safe!" or "Can you pick up milk on your way home?" These text messages work well to support our busy lives, but can they also be incorporated into effective public health interventions and systems?

This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it is looking into letting citizens report crimes via text message. An article posted by Wired discusses the possibility and highlights some of the "barriers" that this new strategy could help to address. First and foremost, it could allow citizens to report a crime without being overheard if they were in dangerous situations (e.g., kidnapping, robbery). The FCC specifically pointed to the 2007 shootings at VirginiaTech and reported that texts could have allowed emergency personnel to respond more quickly and with a better understanding of the circumstances inside the campus buildings.

While at first glance, it may seem surprising to use text messaging for 9-1-1 reporting (due to potential logistical considerations and challenges), it would not be the first time that texts were being integrated into public health interventions and emergency response systems. For example:

  • Text messages are used to disseminate key health messages to various priority populations. E.g., The Text4Baby campaign allows mothers to self select into their program by texting "Baby" to the program number. The mothers then receive weekly text messages (timed to their due date or baby's birth day) regarding key health issues for their babies (e.g., nutrition, immunizations, etc).
  • Many workplaces and college campuses have signed up for emergency response systems that will send out automatic alerts to email and phones (via text message) during a crisis (e.g., shooter on site).
In the case of using text messages for "calling" 9-1-1, I wonder about how texts could influence a well documented social psychology barrier to calling for help. Those of you that took a social psychology course in college may remember the name "Kitty Genovese". She was a woman who was murdered outside her home in Queens, NY in 1964. At least one dozen people heard or observed her attack (lasting approximately 30 minutes), but there was much delay in anyone calling for help. A NY Times article running two weeks after her death was entitled, "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call Police". This case is widely discussed as an example of the "Bystander Effect", which is used to explain why many people do not help in emergency situations when others are present. Some hypotheses about the effect are that we just do what others are doing (i.e., nothing to help), we assume someone else is already calling/helping, or we assume that others are more qualified to help. Perhaps it is also too much trouble to call 9-1-1? They require a lot of information, we have to stay on the phone, etc. Perhaps a more "passive" option to report the information (like text messaging) would decrease resistance and the bystander effect?

In addition to the great potential with this strategy, there are also several barriers that must be addressed in the planning:
  • Costs (equipment, training, staffing)
  • Regulation and Oversight: Will text message support be required or voluntary at emergency centers? Who will conduct a formative and ongoing evaluation of the system?
  • Interpretation of messages: Operators will need special training to (quickly) interpret and respond to text messages. Texts are often written in short hand, so you would need someone very skilled to decipher them accurately. It may also be time consuming to support the texting back and forth that may be required to receive all relevant information from the "caller" in order to dispatch an appropriate response.
Even with the barriers noted above, it does seem like text messages are a viable option to consider in order to increase timely and safe 9-1-1 reporting. However, the 9-1-1 system will need to think critically to develop the type of infrastructure that can keep up with our ever changing and expanding communication technology.


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