Tens of thousands of Pima County residents with hearing or speech problems will finally receive full access to the 911 emergency system, thanks to a recent settlement of a federal lawsuit.
Arizona has agreed to pay $1.36 million for statewide changes so those residents can contact 911 by text message rather than calling an operator.
The change is primarily aimed at helping people with hearing or speech impairments, for whom it is difficult or impossible to summon help through the traditional 911 system.
But it also stands to benefit nondisabled people in situations such as home invasions or domestic violence, where making a voice call could pose additional dangers, officials said.
Nearly 50,000 Pima County residents identified as hearing-impaired in the 2016 U.S. census, said Natalie Luna Rose of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, which helped fund the lawsuit that led to the settlement.
With the new state funding, “Citizens who are deaf, hard of hearing and have speech impairments will have an equal opportunity to secure 911 services,” Rose Daly-Rooney, legal director of the disability law center, said in a news release.
The suit, co-funded by the National Association of the Deaf, was filed two years ago by three Phoenix-area plaintiffs under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which says disabled people must have equal access to government programs.
The state’s settlement money aims to provide initial funding and five years of recurring costs to Arizona counties, including Pima County, that do not yet offer text-to-911 service, the news release said.
Counties will have to apply for the state funding in a process that has yet to be determined.
Deputy James Allerton, a spokesman for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees 911 in the Tucson area, couldn’t say when the new service will be available locally. He said the department has been planning for it for some time.
Once it’s up and running, the public eventually will be able to text photos or video to 911, Allerton said.
All local jurisdictions need to be on board when the system launches so people don’t text and then not get a response, he said.
“It has to be a collaborative effort between us and all the other agencies.”
Currently, text-to-911 service is available only in Maricopa County and Lake Havasu City.