Emergency text response: When alerts become spam

The Farmington, N.M., Fire Department has been using text messaging to firefighters and department officers to supplement its dispatch services for about seven years, and it has found there is a fine line between emergency notifications and spam.

“We’ve had a couple of agencies that have tried to replicate this,” said Farmington firefighter Mark Mordecki. But they have had problems with service providers who were overwhelmed by or suspicious of the mass textings. One cellular carrier in Colorado cut off text service to a department that was sending out 300 texts every time there was a call.

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Farmington uses the Remote Print Manager from Brooks Internet Software in conjunction with its computer-aided dispatch package from New World Systems and Microsoft Exchange to send out texts. Dispatch information entered by the operator at the 911 call center is massaged by RPM into a text-friendly format and sent to the Exchange server where it is queued up to the appropriate groups.

Those working groups are one of the keys to Farmington’s success with the text system. Targeting specific personnel needed for each emergency run keeps the number of texts sent at a time to around 50, “so you don’t get massive expenses with cellular companies for texts,” Mordecki said. “You don’t want to be a spammer.”

Farmington F.D. does not provide cell phones to firefighters but offers stipends for personally owned phones. This means that there are a number of carriers that the system must use, but this is handled in the Exchange server, which matches each user to a cell number and carrier. Mordecki recommends managing recipient lists and text volumes in-house as much as possible rather than relying on services provided by the cellular carriers.

“In my experience, anytime we talk with them they want money,” which the department can ill afford, he said. “We find it better to not even contact them at all.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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