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Text-to-9-1-1: Operational Considerations after Vermont Trial

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-10-17
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Beginning last April, the state of Vermont conducted a six-month trial to test the potential of 9-1-1 text messaging services.  The Williston Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) began accepting 9-1-1 text messages from Verizon Wireless customers on April 18th as part of a collaboration among the Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board, Verizon Wireless, and Intrado, which installed next-generation 9-1-1 software that enabled text messaging in the Williston PSAP. (see our news story posted on April 19).

Although there have been trials in other parts of the country, this was the first statewide trial in Vermont to enable “text-to-9-1-1” technology using 9-1-1 digits and live call takers. According to David Tucker, Executive Director of the Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board, this trial was intended to examine use of text-to-9-1-1 for two types of emergency situations:  one experienced by someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, or one where the caller might be in additional danger if someone overhears them making a voice call to 9-1-1.

With the trial period having culminated on October 15th, 9-1-1 Magazine recently spoke with David Tucker about his views of the viability of test-to-9-1-1 services following the completion of the state’s trial program.

9-1-1 Magazine:  What prompted this trial program?  What did you seek to determine about the value and ability to generate 9-1-1 calls via text message?

David Tucker, Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board: Having successfully implemented a Next Generation 9-1-1 system in late May, 2011, we started looking around at what we might be able to do with the new system. The timing of the FCC request for comment on a number of Next Generation questions, not the least of which was text to 9-1-1, suggested that it was important to see whether there was value in a text to 9-1-1 solution. We engaged our technology provider, Intrado, and they in turn engaged Verizon Wireless, which was already doing a pilot project in North Carolina. Because of the size of our state and the fact that our 9-1-1 system in Vermont is statewide, it made sense to volunteer for a trial. We had of course heard the arguments, both for and against text to 9-1-1, but the arguments against seemed more related to funding concerns than the actual merits of the technology. We wanted to know whether text to 9-1-1 would cause problems in the PSAPs, and the best way to do that was to do it in a controlled test environment. We also felt strongly that it was time to take a step forward and start to enable individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing to interact directly with the 9-1-1 system. Finally, the only way for the systems and vendors to find out whether SMS text to 9-1-1 is viable is to try it. We’ve been very happy with the results. 

9-1-1 Magazine:  How did you work with Verizon Wireless to develop the text-to-9-1-1 system you used?  How does it work?

David Tucker, Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board: Intrado and Verizon Wireless did the development of the text to 9-1-1 trial on our behalf. We were able to leverage their interest in demonstrating the feasibility of SMS text to 9-1-1, in anticipation of whatever the FCC is getting ready to say about this issue.

Text messages sent by Verizon Wireless customers that first hit a cell tower physically located in Vermont are routed by Verizon Wireless to the Intrado network. The text is then routed by Intrado to Vermont’s Williston PSAP, where any of the six call takers can then take the text. The text messages are presented at the call taker console provided by Intrado and appear much the same as a TTY [text teletype] message.


9-1-1 Magazine:  What operating procedures were developed for your telecommunications/dispatch staff to process these calls and get them dispatched?

David Tucker, Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board: There really were no special operating procedures necessary. Because the PSAP staff was already familiar with the TTY application, the learning curve was very short. The volume of texts has not been large and at no time have they had a negative impact on the rest of the work done in the PSAP. Text messaging is just another form of communicating with a call taker.


9-1-1 Magazine:  What were the significant results provided by the trial?

David Tucker, Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board: We have received two emergency texts during the six month trial. In the first case, an individual texted that they were about to commit suicide, and we were able to identify their location in time to get the police there and they saved his life. In the other case, we received a text from an individual who was being battered by her spouse, and we were able to get the police to her location where they arrested her husband. We don’t know if the individual who attempted suicide was deaf or hard of hearing, but we do believe that we might not have been able to intervene in the domestic violence situation if text to 9-1-1 had not enabled the victim to contact us without alerting her spouse that she was on the phone calling 9-1-1.


9-1-1 Magazine:  Based on that trial, where will the state of Vermont go from here in the realm of text-to-9-1-1 operations?

David Tucker, Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board: The original trial period just ended but the system is still operational. We are working on a formal agreement to keep the Verizon Wireless text to 9-1-1 solution in place. We are continuing to talk to other wireless carriers and hope that in time they will all get on board and provide this service in Vermont. The FCC may play a big role in encouraging that depending on what they have to say in response to their request for comments last year, but from our perspective, text to 9-1-1 can save lives, and we are going to do everything we can to see that Vermont is one of the first states to implement the service across all carriers in the state.

9-1-1 Magazine:  What challenges remain?

David Tucker, Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board: We recognize that SMS text to 9-1-1 may not be the best vehicle for texting in an emergency. Other forms of texting may one day become more prevalent. We have taken the position that making the perfect the enemy of the good is not good policy in this instance. The fact remains that most people who use smart phones use SMS text, so we think it is going to be around for a while. The 9-1-1 system as a whole improved when the Automatic Location Information systems were first developed, and Phase II wireless and the ongoing work by the carriers has us on a good path to improved location information for wireless voice calls. If encouraged to do so by the FCC, we think that the wireless carriers will come up with a way to provide location information for SMS texting. In the meantime, we would rather have limited location information with a means for those who can’t make a voice call to contact us in an emergency than to continue to shut out the deaf and hard of hearing and domestic violence victims while we wait for further development of other text solutions.


9-1-1 Magazine:  What advice and/or cautions would you share with other 9-1-1 PSAPs about this issue?

David Tucker, Vermont Enhanced 9-1-1 Board: Like anything new, there are concerns about the impact on PSAPs by opening up this new technology. Those concerns range from a workload impact to kids using text slang to people dropping voice calls in favor of text. Our experience is limited, of course, but we haven’t seen any of those problems arise in Vermont. If someone can make a voice call, that’s still the most efficient and effective way of reaching 9-1-1 in an emergency, and I just don’t see text replacing that anytime soon, if ever. So the focus should be on how to better serve a segment of the population that can’t now easily interact with 9-1-1 in an emergency because they can’t make a voice call.


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Posted by: cpadmin
Date: 2012-10-23 05:10:43
Company: 9-1-1 Magazine
Subject: Reader Question

Another reader asked: the article referred to limited location information - can Mr. Tucker elaborate?

David Tucker answered:
With wireless voice calls, carriers send location information (X,Y coordinates) that help to accurately pinpoint the location of the caller. They do this through a couple of primary methods. One method is a triangulation on satellites while the other is triangulation on cell towers. The ability of the carriers to provide increasingly precise location information for wireless voice callers increases each year. To date, no such methodology exists for SMS texting, although we understand it is under development.

Currently, the only location information we get with SMS text to 9-1-1 is the x,y coordinates of the cell sector that picked up the text message. That provides some information about the location of the individual, but the area covered by a cell sector is much larger and therefore less precise than the location information derived from one of the triangulation methods used for wireless voice.

Some have argued that the 9-1-1 system as a whole should wait until there is better location information for SMS texting, or a different type of texting solution altogether, or both. We believe it is more important to move ahead with SMS texting now as we expect over time that the location identification for SMS text will improve just as it has for wireless voice calls.
Posted by: cpadmin
Date: 2012-10-19 15:14:04
Company: 9-1-1 Magazine
Subject: Reader Question

A reader asked in an email:
The Vermont test to 9-1-1 article is very interesting. I didn't see any mention about text delivery. For instance, was there any focus on preventing delays in delivering the text to the PSAP?

David Tucker answered:
One of the concerns about SMS text to 911 is the potential latency of text messaging which could lead to messages arriving out of order. We do get data regarding latency for each text session created. I'm not sure that there are any steps we could take to "prevent" latency, rather, it's a matter of being aware of it and to date it has not been an issue.

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