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How the FCC’s Text-to-911 ruling impacts emergency responders

Author: John Rennie

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-08-15
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Every year, 9-1-1 dispatchers receive 240 million calls, many of which save lives. But it’s not always possible or safe to call, especially for the 48 million Americans who are deaf or hearing impaired and the 7.5 million with speech disabilities, many of whom rely on texting. A new ruling by the FCC, however, offers citizens more ways to contact 9-1-1 by mandating that all wireless carriers and some message services support Text-to-911 by the end of the year. In life or death situations, this option can be invaluable.

Right now, particularly for members of the public, the emergency response landscape is confusing at best. Even though the four major phone carriers have made Text-to-911 possible, only a small percentage of public safety answering points (PSAPs) can receive and respond to those messages, and messaging apps add another wrinkle to the issue, especially since some are exempt from this ruling. As the new requirements are implemented, there’s still a lot of work to do to make Text-to-911 a true emergency touch point. Here’s the situation and what public safety professionals can expect.


How to make Text-to-911 work

While Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint made 9-1-1 texting possible in May, the PSAP infrastructure lags far behind, preventing most 9-1-1 call centers from receiving and responding to any texts. Just 121 of the nearly 6,000 primary and secondary PSAPs in the U.S. can currently receive text messages - a mere 2 percent. This dichotomy between what carriers enable and what PSAPs can handle has raised too great a risk of a 9-1-1 text that never makes it to the proper authorities.

To complicate the issue further, the existing infrastructure can receive SMS texts, but currently can’t support texts from messaging apps like WhatsApp, iMessage, or Skype. Two years ago, users sent 17.6 billion SMS messages and 19 billion messages through chat apps. The number of texts sent through messaging apps was expected to reach 50 billion this year, compared to just 21 billion SMS texts. 

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Because these messaging apps all operate over the top (OTT), often using IP to transmit information instead of SMS, PSAPs must be prepared to respond to both SMS and OTT communications given the growing abundance and use of different messaging apps.

The rules approved last week focus mainly on carriers and messaging services, and while there were some notable exceptions, including WhatsApp, all wireless carriers and many messaging apps will have to support Text-to-911 by the end of the year. The FCC also proposed expanding the rule to additional services and requiring the inclusion of location data with the messages.


What PSAPs and emergency responders can expect

This ruling doesn’t change much for public safety professionals in their day-to-day operations. And the same changes prompted by the four main carriers’ adoption of Text-to-9-1-1 should also apply to this ruling. It does, however, change community outreach and communications, as education is important to ensure the public knows how they can - and more importantly, how they can’t - reach 9-1-1.

This ruling is also a step in the right direction for Next Generation 911 (NG911), a concept that could expand the range of content and delivery of information to 9-1-1 call centers. In many ways, this is a good opportunity for call-takers to gain experience with communication other than voice. Of the three solutions available for PSAPs today for text, one uses existing telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) protocols, a second uses a web interface, and the third is in line with the spirit of the NG911 standards. A secure, reliable web interface is a key requirement for NG911.


Some fear this ruling will delay other needed upgrades to 9-1-1 call centers, but while these concerns are valid, in many ways the goals of Text-to-911 align with those of NG911. Many of the objections to Text-to-911 that have been voiced since the ruling mirror those made when PSAPs had to accommodate VoIP.

As the public adopts new technologies, PSAPs will have to adapt, making NG9-1-1 more of a journey than a destination. As that journey continues, with Text-to-911 just a single point on the map, PSAPs will evolve to ensure the public that every emergency contact, no matter the form, is answered as quickly as possible.


As General Manager of the Public Safety Global Business Unit of NICE Systems, John Rennie has overseen audio and video projects for public safety agencies serving some of the world’s largest cities as well as notable federal agencies such as the FAA. Prior to assuming his current position, John was VP of NICE Systems’ Public Safety Research and Development team in the UK. Under John’s lead, the team developed Next Gen 9-1-1 solutions to support Next Gen 9-1-1 communications and multimedia in the form of audio, video, pictures, documents and other data. An NG9-1-1 expert, John was recently featured in an interview for a segment on texting to 9-1-1 on the WSJ (Wall Street Journal) Daily Wrap. John also blogs on Next Gen 9-1-1-related topics for NICE Fusion, NICE’s blog covering public safety and security trends.



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