(TNS) — People can livestream their every move on Facebook and chatter endlessly in group chats. But in most parts of the nation, they still can't reach 911 by texting — an especially important service during mass shootings and other catastrophes when a phone call could place someone in danger.
However, since about 2014, communications centers for the Fayetteville Police Department and Cumberland County Emergency Management have used text-to-911 service.
Leaders of both agencies say it’s not frequently used, mainly because a lack of knowledge of the service in the community and the lack of situations that would require the text service.
“Thankfully, most emergency situations do not expose the caller to additional danger if they speak out loud,” said Adam Johnson, manager of the county’s Emergency Communications Center 911 Telecommunications.
The county and the city are using services that are becoming outdated, but plan upgrades in 2019.
“In May, the first Emergency Service Internet Protocol Network was implemented in Raleigh,” said Lisa Reid, Fayetteville Police Department’s 911 Communications manager. “The new 911 system will replace the old system with NextGeneration (NextGen) technology that will enable text, data, video and photo communications.”
The new system will allow dispatchers to receive and send information to first responders in the field and will allow inter-agency cooperation in high-volume call sitautions, she said.
The county will be among agencies nationwide switching to Emergency Services Internet Protocol Networks, or ESInets, that will allow quicker sharing of emergency data among agencies, Johnson said.
“We rely upon AT&T and CenturyLink for the installation and deployment,” he said, “and unless there are delays, we hope to have our ESInet in place by the spring of 2019.”
If a center requests the service from mobile companies like Verizon or Sprint, however, the companies are required to provide it within six months.
Although text-to-911 service is slowly expanding, the emphasis there is on "slow." Limited funds, piecemeal adoption and outdated call-center technology have all helped stymie growth.
More money would speed implementation. "We need a significant federal grant program to modernize 911 systems across the country," said Jeff Cohen, chief counsel at advocacy group the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
Congressional legislation could speed adoption of text-to-911, and while there are two bills currently making their way through Congress related to the issue, they need more bipartisan support, Cohen said. Traditionally 911 call centers have been funded by a combination of state and local funding, rather than relying on federal grants. For that reason technology and adoption varies widely between states, cities and counties.
While some areas may have plenty of money to implement text-to-911 service, "others are cash strapped cities or communities that would rather spend money on a police car rather than text-to-911," said Brian Fontes, chief executive officer of the National Emergency Number Association. "When you don't have the money, you have to prioritize what you do with the money you have."
The first text-to-911 was sent in 2009 in Iowa. Now, according to data collected by the Federal Communications Commission, more than 1,600 emergency call centers across the nation have configured systems to receive text message requests for 911 services, up from about 650 two years ago . But that's barely a quarter of the roughly 6,000 overall in the country. Figures are a bit murky since they are self-reported to the FCC.
Emergency 911 centers stress that a phone call is still the best way to reach them, since calls provide them with location data and other needed details. But in some cases — for instance, if a person has a hearing disability, or when a call might attract the attention of assailants — texting is a far better way to call for help.
The 911 emergency system was developed for landlines. But now about 80 percent of nation's 911 calls come from cellphones, according to the federal government's National 911 Program. There is no legal requirement for call centers to offer text-to-911 services.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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