A look at how the new 911 text-messaging service is working in Snohomish County

EVERETT -- As some counties in Washington roll out 911 text-messaging service to help a greater number of people, they're finding some are misusing the service or even performing pranks.

In Snohomish County, a 911 text message comes into the Southwest Snohomish County Communications Agency, or SNOCOM.

The service has been available for the past three weeks. People are using it, but the message officials are trying to drive home is: Call if you can, text if you can't.

Derek Wilson takes his job as a dispatch supervisor with SNOCOM seriously.

"If you can call, unless it's jeopardizing your safety, then that is the best means of communication," he said.

Text messaging 911 is for "those people who are in public safety situations" and can't use a phone, he said.

Since the text-messaging service rolled out on July 9, SNOCOM has found about 80 percent of the calls have been non-emergencies or even pranks.

One text message received July 26 was from someone who wrote they were being robbed. When the dispatcher asked if they could safely make a voice call, the sender replied no. When the dispatcher pressed for an address, the sender backed down and wrote, "No, thank you, everything is fine."

"They realized that they did something a little more serious than they thought ... they were getting a serious response," said Debbie Grady, executive director of SNOCOM.

She said about 10 percent of the text messages have been valid and the right option, such as two people who were deaf and two other victims of domestic violence who couldn't phone because of the circumstances.

At this point, SNOCOM is looking to improve the system with location and translation services.

Meanwhile, Kitsap County also has been using 911 text messaging. From June to July, dispatchers there received 42 texts; 10 of those were sent by accident. But seven were from people who needed help and weren't in a position to phone 911.