Minnesota, hoping to be a national leader on the text-to-911 front, rolled out a statewide implementation last December, eschewing the temptations of a county-by-county deployment. There were real, practical reasons for the state to decide on the statewide deployment instead of by Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP).
One reason is that the state is fairly rural and hosts many tourists who come to enjoy the 10,000 lakes, the winter snowmobiling or the many hiking trails. For them, and even for many locals, knowing which PSAP is able to receive 911 texts is asking too much in times of need.
So the state picked a PSAP in each of seven regions to initially begin taking texts. One region was divided in half so eight PSAPs initially started receiving texts. That’s up to 16. If a text is sent to 911, it goes to the nearest PSAP receiving texts within that region.
“Really the public doesn’t know or care where their call or text is being answered,” said Dana Wahlberg, director of Minnesota’s Emergency Communications Networks for the Department of Public Safety. “They want the assurance of being able to place the text and that it’s answered whether that’s next door or 20 miles away.”
The endeavor began in 2014 when the Statewide Emergency Communications Board approved an initiative to do statewide text-to-911. The seven regions signed a resolution that they would not move independently, and each appointed a PSAP to take the lead. “In most cases, it was one of the larger PSAPs or a centrally located one that was chosen,” Wahlberg said.
Then an RFP was developed to find a vendor to implement Text Control Center (TCC) services, which translates the 911 texts and West Communications was selected for that.
Taking the path of least resistance, the state chose to do an “integrated methodology,” which means that the learning curve would be lessened, and the training wouldn’t be as involved. Wahlberg explained: “It means the text actually comes in through the call handling system. There are queue buttons on the telephone computer and one is designated as the button that texts report into. It emulates the way either a TTY call or a voice call would come in.”
Wahlberg said the state approached training from different fronts, including monthly meetings with the Next Generation 911 Committee where a representative from each region attended. There is also a working group tasked with developing an operational standard that is a “work in progress.”
Walhberg said some counties still aren’t ready to implement text-to-911. She said some need equipment upgrades or software upgrades, but others need a full replacement of their call-handling equipment. These PSAPs have until Dec. 28, 2018 to go live, firm up a date to go live or enter into a formal agreement with another PSAP to handle their texts.
During the first three months, there were just under a thousand texts to 13 PSAPS. That will increase as it becomes more widespread and acknowledged, Wahlberg said.
Public Information Officer for the Department of Public Safety, Amber Schindeldecker, said there is a learning curve and the public is still figuring out how the system works. “A lot of PSAPs are taking texts saying, ‘Does this work, did you receive this?’ Part of our education campaign is that a text to 911 is the same as a call to 911, so you’d better have an emergency.”
She said there have been some unanticipated ways that the system has already uncovered. “One child texted 911 to report her parents having a domestic dispute,” she said. “Because the last time when she called, her parents disciplined her for calling.”