Local News

Emergency dispatchers push for 911 texts

Posted August 25, 2009 5:00 p.m. EDT
Updated August 25, 2009 7:50 p.m. EDT

— 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.

"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.