911 texting option on the horizon, but rollout is a challenge for some communities

By Jennifer Andes Civitas Media

July 3, 2014

A violent crime is unfolding close enough for any movement or sound to attract the culprit’s attention.

Finding themselves in this situation, the estimated 91 percent of American adults who own cell phones may instinctively put their device on silent and fire off a text message to 911.

Would help arrive?

Not unless the crime is happening in one of the estimated 100 zones in 16 states across the nation covered by 911 centers that accept text messages. And even then, it may depend on the wireless carrier, because some are only equipped to receive texts from certain carriers for now.

But officials pushing for full texting acceptance at the nearly 6,000 emergency call centers across America expect participation to grow in the coming months and years, particularly now that the four major wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — voluntarily met a deadline last month to make the service available.

The four carriers cover about 95 percent of wireless service in the country, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Now it’s up to each 911 center to request and implement the texting service, and these centers fall under a patchwork of local or state control, with some more driven to embrace the option than others. These centers range from large, countywide operations to tiny ones in which a handful of call takers serve a rural town, the FCC says.

Federal officials are urging centers to comply, but FCC officials say there’s no federal agency that has regulatory authority to force all centers to receive texts by a certain date.

The four carriers have 180 days to provide the texting service once a 911 center requests it, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which is among the groups spearheading the movement.

Each 911 center must train its call takers and choose a technology platform to receive the texts, with many choosing web-based software that doesn’t require significant financial investment, the FCC says.

“We’re beginning to see now where more of these 911 authorities are starting to make the request of the carriers to begin the process to enable texting to 911,” Fontes said.

Blanket 911 texting implementation is essential so the public isn’t confused, said Fontes. Several different call centers cover the territory in a 30-mile radius around his home in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, he said.

“As the public becomes more mobile and embraces new methods for communicating, 911 also has to be ready to answer non-voice requests for assistance,” Fontes said.

“Next Generation 911” is being implemented in various ways and on different timetables across the country. In West Virginia, Greg Lay, director of Boone County 911 Emergency Services, said, “It will take millions of dollars in upgrades from the telephone service provides, as well as the emergency centers.” Then, it would be a matter of learning how to best use this new technology.

“Anytime you add something new, there’s a learning curve involved,” said Lay. “However, I am sure that once we’ve got it and have been using it for a while, we’ll wonder how we ever did without it.”

In southern Ohio, plans are in the works to add texting to the 911 system, but the timetable varies.

In Scioto County, Shawn Sparks of the Scioto County Sheriff’s Office, said, “I do know they are working on a new generation of 911.” He said he is working with the local phone vendor and “their new system for the new generation is supposed to be up and running by the end of the year,” a system that will include updated mapping and the ability to receive and send 911 texts.

In Hillsboro, Ohio, Highland County Commissioner Tom Horst said the county needs to explore the costs associated with a 911 text upgrade. But he said that ultimately, the technology is “another step up.”

“With today’s culture, texting is a normal, everyday way to communicate. I think it would be a big benefit to the emergency responders here,” said Horst

In North Carolina, Jimmy Williamson, director of Robeson County’s E-911 Communications Center, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the county receiving text messages early next year. Williamson said he needs to speak with phone vendors and make some updates to the center’s phone system.

Richard Taylor, executive director of the North Carolina 911 Board, said there’s no reason for local 911 centers to wait on upgrades to their other equipment.

“To do text-to-911 today would really be a fairly minimal cost to 911 centers … and the funding for that is available through the 911 Fund,” Taylor said. Taylor said he would like to see the entire state using text-to-911 “yesterday.”

Roger Hixson, the NENA’s technical issues director, expects rapid implementation throughout the nation.

“I would hope most will have texting implemented within the next two years or less, but I’m sure there will be some holdouts here or there for some reason,” Hixson said.

In the interim, major carriers have agreed to provide a bounce-back message to anyone who sends a 911 text instructing them to contact emergency services by another means if texting isn’t available.

The bounce-back requirement should substantially reduce the risk of consumers mistakenly believing 911 authorities had received their text while the nationwide rollout of texting is “still in the very early stages,” the FCC said.

AT&T spokeswoman Brandy Bell said the carrier is accommodating call center requests for texting but urges customers to call when possible.

“We still feel that voice calls are the most efficient and effective way to communicate in an emergency,” Bell said.

The texting is part of an initiative for emergency response to keep up with communication technology used by the public, and includes future goals of allowing citizens to transmit photos and videos to 911 centers.

The 911 system was established throughout the United States in 1968 because the numerals 911 were brief, easily remembered and could be dialed quickly, according to a history published by NEMA. The first 911 call in the country was in Haleyville, Alabama, in February 1968.

By 1987, half the country’s residents had access to 911 services. About 96 percent of the geographic United States now has 911 coverage, the association said.

Though the country’s 911 system has been an “unqualified success story” for more than 40 years, many call centers still have older, analog-based infrastructure and equipment that wasn’t designed to accommodate emergency calls from new technology increasingly used today, says the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration, dubbed RITA.

A “continually evolving system of hardware, software, standards, policies, protocols and training” will be required to keep up with technology available to consumers, one government publication says.

The FCC points to a 2013 Pew Internet and American Life Project study that said 91 percent of American adults own cell phones, and 81 percent of those consumers use their devices to send and receive text messages.

Fontes highlights another statistic: 40 percent of American households rely solely on wireless service because they have no landline phones.

The 911 centers also must adapt to “over-the-top” texts delivered through third-party entities - not major wireless carriers, the FCC says. This includes some instant messaging applications available through internet-connected desktop and laptop computers and tablets, smart phones and gaming and online streaming devices that hook up to televisions.

The FCC wants all third-party entities to accommodate 911 texting to emergency call centers by the end of the year, though there are some technical issues that must be resolved to make the deadline feasible, Hixson said.

Lise Hamlin said that 911 texting is important for her and the other 48 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss.

“It would be a huge help to people,” said Hamlin, public policy director at the Bethesda, Maryland-based Hearing Loss Association of America.

People who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired can communicate with 911 centers through TTY devices and relay services that allow them to receive typed responses. But that system involves a delay, and people who have TTY devices that adapt to cell phones don’t always carry the devices with them.

Many who are comfortable with sign language are using video software or relay services to communicate with others, but she wasn’t aware of any 911 centers that adapted to this technology.

Texting would allow anyone to communicate back and forth, she said.

“We’ve heard of situations where people who were deaf wanted to help someone in an accident when they were on the road, and they had no way to get through. If texting was available, they could contact 911,” Hamlin said.

Someone who is deaf or hard of hearing could call 911 from a cell phone and inform the dispatcher they can’t hear, but texting would allow the dispatcher to ask questions and send instructions.

“I’m a big promoter of the texting option. It’s not only useful if you’re deaf but also if you’re in a situation of domestic violence or when you have to be silent,” Hamlin said.

She recalled news reports about dozens of students and workers who frantically sent texts to 911 seeking help during the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University, to no avail.

Federal officials and other promoters of 911 texting stress that the public should always call first if that’s an option.

The pinpointing of locations is less accurate with 911 texts because the signal is not triangulated to multiple cell towers to obtain a Global Positioning System (GPS) location, as is the case with an ongoing phone call. Those who do text should try to type in the address, officials say.

Valuable information from a live exchange between the dispatcher and caller also may be lost with texting, officials say.

The point of 911 texting is providing citizens and emergency responders with all options to “communicate easily and seamlessly during moments of crisis,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), one of the chairs of the Congressional E9-1-1 Caucus focusing on emergency response initiatives.

“Our government services have to be as sophisticated as the technology our citizens are using, and forward-thinking initiatives like text-to-911 services are critical to ensuring that our emergency response resources keep pace with advances in technology that can literally mean the difference between life and death,” Klobuchar said.