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Emergency dispatchers push for 911 texts

Posted August 25, 2009

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— Text messaging has become a popular form of communication, but the technology doesn't work when trying to get through to a 911 operator.

Many 911 centers have improved technology over the years to track cell phone calls or broadband data. Even with Internet capability, emergency calls still come in through copper phone lines, not wireless handsets.

911 generic 911 centers can't handle texting technology

"Most citizens are walking around with more technology on their hip or on their side than we have in our 911 center," Johnston County 911 director Jason Barbour said.

Barbour, a former president of the National Emergency Number Association, a group working on the next generation of 911 technology, said most people are programmed to call for help, but texting sometimes makes more sense.

During a tragedy like the Virginia Tech shootings, for example, students in hiding could have silently texted information about the gunman to authorities instead of drawing his attention by calling 911 and talking to a dispatcher.

"If somebody is intruding, obviously you don't have the opportunity to call somebody. If you do, you're in trouble. You're a target," said North Carolina State University student Lauren Quevas, who said she sends thousands of text messages every month.

"It definitely makes sense, and if they could develop that technology, it would definitely be a wonderful help link," N.C. State student Mallory Albert said.

This month, Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first locale in the U.S. to accept 911 text messages, and Barbour and other emergency center directors are pushing for more widespread implementation in the coming months.

"What we're waiting on now is for the phone companies and the standards to get in place so that this type of media can be transmitted to the 911 centers," Barbour said.

Although a portion of every cell phone bill is designated for technology upgrades, most phone carriers say texting isn't yet reliable and secure enough to contact 911.

AT&T officials said in a statement that texting, also known as SMS or Short Messaging Service, was never designed to be a means of emergency communications.

"AT&T believes that text messaging via SMS is an inappropriate mechanism for any time-sensitive, mission-critical communications," the statement said.

Some cell phone carriers said they expect limited testing and deployment of emergency texting technology over the next two years.


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  • mpheels Aug 26, 2009

    As far as the 2-way communication with a voice conversation vs. texting goes, it wouldn't be very difficult for a 911 operator to send a response confirming the initial 911 text was received, especially given the capabilities already in place to sending SMS messages b/t computers and phones. As for text messages not being a priority, there has to be a way to work around that as well. I'm sure someone out there is capable of design a mechanism to ensure timely delivery of 911 texts.

  • smalldogsrule Aug 26, 2009

    I agree that text messages are USUALLY delayed for a while before they reach the intended target. The dipatchers at the Harnett county 911 center regularly get cell phone calls from other counties. Even one from WILMINGTON. If cell services can't even get calls reliably to THE CORRECT 911 center, how will texting work. Not to mention, dispatchers have enough on their plates already training wise, especially with having needs to translate foreign languages, they don't need to be saddled with the additional problem of keeping up with the EVER CHANGING GIBBERISH known as text speak.

  • 007KnightRider Aug 26, 2009

    "A text message may not be immediately routed to the recipient. It may arrive minutes or hours later, if at all. They are not priority. We need to listen to the phone companies on this and not go wild with what seems like a good idea until the technology catches up." -ghimmy51

    I agree, the idea does seem good on paper but to act and get this into motion is a different story. Calling 911 is the most effective. If I was in a life or death situation I would rather hear the dispatcher on the other end to ensure an officers was en route.

  • ghimmy51 Aug 26, 2009

    A text message may not be immediately routed to the recipient. It may arrive minutes or hours later, if at all. They are not priority. We need to listen to the phone companies on this and not go wild with what seems like a good idea until the technology catches up.

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT Aug 26, 2009

    When you call 911, you hear the 911 operator speaking back to you. Which tells you they heard what you said and got the important information. When you send a text, you have no idea if the text message got to its recipient. If you are dealing with a person needing timely medical assistance, and your text doesn't go through, you wouldn't know it. That person could die because you didn't call 911 and make sure they got the info. Texting might have its place. But it doesn't seem as reliable as hearing the 911 operator tell you they're on their way.

  • mondosinistro Aug 25, 2009

    That's part of why I say it's a complex question, with many facets. Suppose you get a text that says someone is in trouble? How do you find out where they are? Can you track them, maybe by their device sending GPS readings? (Again, this doesn't involve sending a lot of information--far less than you need for voice.) And it helps if you have a whole system, so that fo example you can quickly link the cell phone # (or other device #) to a car the person knows, ATM or credit cards they might be using (and nearly locations where they might be used--and possibly their surveillance cameras), and so on. Then of course there are inevitably privacy concerns. There's not going to be a panacea, but it seems worth looking into, and discussing.

  • pattip574 Aug 25, 2009

    When I first read this, I thought it was unnecessary. As a 911 provider, I realize now how valuable this technology can be. Not only will this take a potential victim out of harm's way by allowing them to hide and text info, it will also open 911 to deaf and hard of hearing people who's cell phones are only text capable. I hope they push this through!!

  • ThisIsMyName Aug 25, 2009

    Getting 911 calls from the deaf with something other than a TDD would be great, but again, it needs to be consistently reliable, two-way, traceable, and timely.

  • anonemoose Aug 25, 2009

    And wait for those prank texts, and how do you get real time info ?

  • mondosinistro Aug 25, 2009

    The whole subject of being able to get messages from people in dire circumstances is IMO worth a much closer look. We all can think of situations where being able to pick up a distress call from someone in trouble could've made all the difference. Many of these things unfold over many minutes, even hours. I usually think of murders (single or multiple), but it could also apply to other things, such as someone lost in a blizzard. BTW I don't take it as a given that cell phones are the best platform for such a service. You want something that isn't too easily blocked, but you don't need to transmit a lot of information; so maybe low frequencies would be better.