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National Emergency Number Association

911 to text is here

As expected.

Text-to-911 service is available now in Harris and Fort Bend counties for Verizon and T-Mobile wireless customers.

“This is not to be used just because people like to text, but when people cannot make a voice call,” said Sonya Clauson, spokeswoman for the Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network.

The service for Verizon and T-Mobile subscribers went live on Tuesday, Clauson said. Sprint and AT&T cellphone customers in the two-county area are expected to be able to use messaging services to reach emergency help next month.

See here and here for the background. Remember, as the National Emergency Number Association says, call if you can, text if you can’t. Hair Balls has more.

Text to 911 option coming locally

Ever wonder why you can’t text 911? Well, in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, you will soon be able to.

By the end of the year, millions of Houston-area residents are expected to have a silent alternative: the Text-to-911 option for emergencies.

Despite the popularity of messaging, the service hasn’t been available in most of the nation and much of Texas for the most life-threatening situations: pleas for fire, police or medical assistance.

In May, the nation’s four major wireless carriers met a voluntary deadline to have their end of the Text-to-911 technology ready to deliver customers’ messages topublic safety agencies that request the service, the Federal Communications Commission reported.

As a result, dozens of call centers nationwide and several in Texas can now receive texts from cellphones on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, which provides technical support for call centers in Harris and Fort Bend counties that serve more than 5 million residents, will be ready in the coming months to do the same with at least one carrier.

That’s important because most people in the Houston area call for emergency help by cellphone. In the first seven months of this year, 84 percent of emergency calls in Harris and Fort Bend counties originated from wireless lines, Greater Harris County 911 figures show.

[…]

FCC rules specify that by year’s end, all wireless carriers – not just the major companies – should be able to provide text messages to call centers that have requested the service.

Those centers, however, are not required to exercise that option, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association – which is known as NENA.

Some states, such as Indiana and Vermont, are deploying the service statewide, he said. Others, such as California, leave the decision to individual public safety call centers or networks.

According to an FCC list dated Aug. 25, 18 states had at least one 911 center that could receive texts, though some were limited to one or two major carriers. The police departments in the Lone Star State which can receive texts are mostly in the Dallas Metroplex. There are none so far in the Houston area.

With the major carriers ready, the last hurdle is preparation at local 911 centers, said NENA government affairs director Trey Forgety.

As we know, text to 911 is currently available in some North Texas counties, which are so far the only places where it has been deployed. Nationally, however, only about two percent of emergency call centers around the country are prepared to handle text messages, and compliance is voluntary at this time. I’d guess that while cell calls are the bulk of 911 contacts, there’s still not much demand for texting emergency services.

All of Collin County supports the service. But it isn’t offered anywhere in Denton County. A handful of police departments in Dallas County can receive emergency texts: Balch Springs, Cockrell Hill, Sachse, Seagoville and Wilmer.

But texts still account for only a fraction of 911 requests in North Texas.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments oversees 44 call centers in a 16-county region that includes Dallas, Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties.

Of those centers, 25 have text-to-911 capability, and the rest will have it by the end of September, said Christy Williams, chief 911 program officer for the agency.

Since the service launched in January 2013, dispatchers at these centers have received only 12 text messages, compared with more than a million 911 calls, she said.

You can see why the rollout is proceeding slowly. To some extent, this is a chicken-and-egg question, and I’ve no doubt that over time usage will grow. There are also still some technical advantages to calling 911, though perhaps over time that will change as well. For now, the potential remains theoretical. For more on the text-to-911 program, see the FCC webpage.

Texting 911

This is clearly the way of the future, though I admit that I myself would be a bit leery of using it right now.

With eight of 10 Americans using their cellphones to send or receive text messages, some emergency response centers are updating their technology. Among them are centers in 12 Texas counties, hoping to accommodate situations in which calling 911 may be risky or impossible.

The text-to-911 service is an early step in a national initiative to modernize the emergency call system. The initial deployment in Texas, where the service is available at 27 call centers for Verizon or T-Mobile users, is one of the largest so far in the country.

Text-to-911 technology, which allows a user to send a text to 911, also makes emergency response more accessible to the deaf community. Phone calls remain the priority, officials said, because voice calls have better location-targeting capabilities.

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North Texas counties were among the early adopters, partly because the call centers run by the North Central Texas Council of Governments already had an Internet-based calling system that enabled the cost-free installation of text-to-911. Call centers with older equipment would need to spend anywhere from $80,000 to $8 million to enable the service, depending on their size, said Christy Williams, the chief 911 program officer with the council.

LeAnna Russell, the system’s 911 database supervisor, said that while the several 911 texts sent in North Texas so far have not been the most dramatic of circumstances, they have been important. “We’re just glad they’re using the system,” she added.

Williams, who will become the president of the National Emergency Number Association next month, said the long-term goal was to make sure emergency response technology kept up with cellular technology used by consumers.

“We’re ripping out and replacing an infrastructure that’s over 45 years old,” she said. “Once that’s done, we can provide enhanced features for citizens and public safety responders.”

Potential future advances in 911 technology include incorporating video and photo messaging in emergency response systems and allowing different 911 call centers to share maps and databases, which could cut costs and improve efficiency, Fontes said.

“In a next-generation 911 environment,” he said, “when a car crash happens, people could move around, take pictures of the scene and the license plates, and all of this information will be pushed through the responders and hospitals before they even arrive.”

My initial reaction to this was one of skepticism – I thought, if I’m having an emergency, I’d rather have a live person I can talk to on the other end of the line – but the more I think about it, the more I can see the utility of this. For one thing, texting would be mighty handy in any situation where making noise could be dangerous. For another, in the context of an app you could attach a photo or other useful evidence, as you now can for non-emergency purposes as with Houston’s 311 app. Down the line I could imagine integrating Skype or Facetime or some other video chat function. Not many people use this now, but that will surely change. I figure by the time this is rolled out nationally, it will be an indispensable tool in the kit.