Significant upgrades to Ellis County’s emergency communications equipment were completed last week, and residents now have the ability to text 911 if they are unable to make a phone call.

The texting capabilities went live Oct. 25. Making a phone call continues to be the recommended method of calling for emergency help, but texting could provide a potentially life-saving connection in certain situations, said Darin Myers, Ellis County emergency management coordinator and fire chief.

“The main thing to point out is it’s always better to physically call 911 rather than send a text,” he said. “There are certain situations where it would be better to text. The hearing disabled can text 911 if they have an issue, and we could respond back and forth with that, as well as if there’s any type of hostile situation.”

Text messages can be sent to 911, and the message should include as much detail as possible, including the nature and location of the emergency. It’s important to spell out words entirely rather than using popular abbreviations, he said.

A phone number and the service carrier can be pulled from the text messages. But quickly pinpointing an exact location is only possible when a telephone call is made to the communications center, which enables an improved mapping feature that also was part of recent upgrades.

Calls made from landlines can be traced to an exact location quickly, while emergency operators can ping cellphone devices to help identify where the caller is located. The mapping accuracy improves the longer a phone connection is maintained, Myers said.

The mapping software now allows dispatchers to view all of the counties surrounding Ellis County, instead of cutting off at the county line. Previously, the county had to contract with an outside company each year for GPS locating capabilities.

Improvements to the 911 system — known as Next Generation 911 — are part of a nationwide program to enhance emergency communications. Approximately 80 Kansas counties have implemented the technology.

In Ellis County, the 911 upgrades were combined with radio infrastructure improvements at a total cost of approximately $800,000. The project was funded through a statewide cellphone tax of approximately 60 cents per cellphone, per month. The county had been saving that money since the tax was implemented approximately six years ago.

Communications infrastructure was replaced on the county’s tower at Spring Hill Road — that technology had dated back to 1992. New radio consoles also were purchased for dispatch personnel.

The upgrades also will improve the county’s back-up capabilities to ensure emergency services always will be available. The new technology has a fiber link to a statewide master site in Salina, which would enable communication to be transferred elsewhere and continue. In the event the dispatch center itself would have to be evacuated, the county now could transfer call center operations to Russell County until a backup center is established, he said.

The emergency operations center is staffed by the city of Hays, while Ellis County provides equipment. At least 12 agencies — including city, county and state law enforcement, fire departments and EMS — rely on the county communications system.

“Whenever there’s an emergency in Ellis County, the first point of notification that anybody gets always goes to the communications center,” Myers said. “And usually, up until that emergency is done and the last part of that before the scene is being cleared and everybody’s returning to their stations, is communication with the communications center. They’re involved in every single emergency day-in and day-out.”