Text to 9-1-1 Provides Additional Public Safety Contact Method Where Available

June 9th, 2014

It’s not a surprising number from the National Emergency Number Association: 70 to 80 percent of the calls that most of the 9-1-1 centers across the country now receive are from mobile phones. And as more and more people give up their home landlines and rely exclusively on mobile phones that percentage is expected to rise even higher during the next several years. Eight in 10 people also use their cell phones to send and receive text message. But, except in a few areas of the country, you can’t communicate via text messaging with a 9-1-1 center, also called a public safety answering point or PSAP.

It seems like a good emergency policy that in instances where it’s unsafe or impossible to place a voice call to 9-1-1, such as during a hostage or active shooter situation, or for people with hearing or speech difficulties, that texting 9-1-1 for help would be ideal. However, as with most new technology innovations, funding the upgrades to allow texting capabilities at 9-1-1 centers doesn’t come cheap. Estimates to upgrade PSAPS to enable texting technology range anywhere from $80,000 to $8 million, depending on their size, according to Christy Williams, the chief 9-1-1 program officer with the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Of the 6,400 PSAPs in the country, very few of them currently have the technology to communicate via text message. According to the FCC’s records 9-1-1 texting is available on a limited basis in only 16 states. Here in Maryland, Frederick County is currently the only county in the state with the ability to send and receive texts from the public. Last year, the county signed on to a pilot program for the state to send and receive text messages from Verizon customers.

Mr. Chip Jewell, the county’s director of emergency communications, says one of the biggest factors for participating in the pilot program was the Frederick campus of the Maryland School for the Deaf. “Every citizen deserves the right to call 911, and we have a large proportion of deaf and the hard of hearing in Frederick. We have a responsibility to serve everyone,” he says. “We’ve been very proactive in our public outreach about text-to-911. We average one text a month but it’s good to have this as another avenue to communicate.”

Frederick County was the sixth county in the country to participate in the pilot program with Verizon. Jewell says they hope to have the other major carriers on board by the end of the year.

Right now the four largest carriers — Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T — send “bounce back” text messages if you text 9-1-1 in an area where the service is not yet available. Starting last month, those carriers all agreed to provide the text-to-911 service where the PSAP is ready to receive texts. But the PSAP must request this service and have the ability to use it.

“We did a lot of training and testing to ensure we were ready to answer texts,” says Jewell. “We do test messages every single day to make sure our dispatchers know how to answer them and that the system is working.”

It’s important to note that the FCC does not have regulatory oversight of 9-1-1 centers, meaning that it cannot require centers to accept text messages. It’s also important to remember that when you’re able to call 9-1-1, do so. The call-takers and dispatchers often need more information about the situation and location to send the most relevant help possible.

“We’ve had a couple of texts that were justified for texting,” says Jewell. “Once we get the initial call the next message we send out to them is ‘can you make a voice call?’ We don’t want them to text us just because they like to text. It’s still more efficient to call.”

Ultimately, though, providing another avenue for public safety to respond to the scene of an emergency should be encouraged by the FCC, enabled by the wireless carriers, and implemented by the nation’s PSAPs.

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