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Text to 9-1-1: Things to Consider

Author: Dave Larton

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-12-18
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The Federal Communications Commission has entered into an agreement with our nation’s four largest wireless carriers (Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T) to enable Next Generation 9-1-1 text messages to be taken by PSAP’s by May of 2014.

In a statement highlighting the new agreement, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated,  “The actions we have taken this week seek to require that all wireless carriers, as well as providers of certain Internet-based text messaging applications, enable their customers to send text messages to 9-1-1 where PSAPs are prepared to receive such messages.”

Several PSAPs in the states of Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont have already begun a limited rollout of the new service, and other 9-1-1 Centers are expected to come online during 2013.  As part of the new agreement, PSAPs will have an automatic ‘bounce’ message to potential text users of the service if the Center cannot respond to their 9-1-1 text request, and the FCC has developed a background web page explaining the technology at

This new technology is only the latest in what has been an almost constant drumbeat since 9-1-1 was first developed almost thirty years ago.  The next few years will see callers having the ability to send photos and video, as well as text messages, into the 9-1-1 Center.   This presents our Centers with some opportunities, as well as a few challenges.

A couple of years back, I was presenting the concept of text-to-9-1-1 at a state conference.  In the back of the room, a PSAP director flatly stated, “…that will never happen.  We will never take text calls in our Center.”    I clearly remember hearing similar comments made when the industry began taking Voice-Over-Internet (VoIP) calls.  “We will never take those calls.” 

Yet, the calls came.  As a 9-1-1 Center, we have the responsibility to accept calls from any medium that may be used to declare an emergency situation.  The new text-to-9-1-1 technology would allow a caller to not only report a traffic accident, but to send the PSAP a picture of what the crash actually looks like.

There will certainly be issues…how will we handle false text calls, which already drive 9-1-1 calltakers and dispatchers crazy on the telephone?  How will we recontact text callers who have contacted us?  Will the medium speed up, or actually slow down a 9-1-1 call?  It’s difficult to know what the exact policies and procedures will be, as many of our current vendors have not developed the technology as yet to make this entire concept work.  And finally, integrating that technology into our existing consoles has traditionally been frustrating at best.  How many times have vendors informed us that their newest gizmo is completely “Plug N Play” with everything we already have online…except…it usually isn’t.  The expression, “we’ll have that feature in the next build-out” makes 9-1-1 Center Managers ears bleed.

At any rate, it’s coming.  It will be here soon.  We owe it to our citizens to learn as much as we can about this latest NG911 technology, so we’ll all be ready when it does arrive at our doorstep.  Rather than denying the medium, let’s embrace it as the latest way that we, as the ‘first’ first responders can answer that incoming call for help.

Associate Editor Dave Larton has been involved with public safety for 35 years, 15 of them in dispatch.  He is currently the Chief ACS/RACES Officer for the Telecommunications Branch of the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA).  A nationally known dispatch instructor, Dave continues to provide training and consulting services for dispatchers and PSAP managers as Operations Section Chief of First Contact 9-1-1, LLC.




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