The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a rule last month that requires wireless carriers to support text-to-911 functionality by the end of 2014. Experts support the idea, but are concerned about the impact it may have on the public, particularly in areas where 911 call centers don’t have next-generation technology online to accept emergency texts.

Some public safety access points (PSAPs) are upgrading their equipment or reaching partnerships with other area call centers that have next-gen 911 to cover their jurisdictions. But there are others that haven’t, which increases the risk of people texting for help and not receiving an answer.

Terry Hall, chief of emergency communications for the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Call Center in Virginia, said more than 30,000 text-to-911 messages went “in the bit bucket” during 2013 – going completely unanswered. And with an increasing percentage of 911 calls coming from mobile devices, that number may rise in the future.

Hall and Al Fjerstad, PSAP manager with the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office in Milaca, Minn., believe one of the solutions is a “bounce-back” message.

When a person sends a text to 911 and service isn’t available, the person would receive a message back letting them know the system isn’t text-ready and to call 911. The major wireless carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – voluntarily agreed to provide text-to-911 and the bounce-back message feature by May 15 this year. The capability is currently deployed sporadically in the U.S., including dozens of cities and a handful of entire states, including Maine and Vermont.

But while the big carriers make up a good chunk of the text messaging provider market, all carriers need to agree to the bounce-back feature for the idea to work. Even if the service isn’t available, a person needs to know they’ve been heard.

“We all know with text messaging … even though you get that little message that says ‘delivered,’ that person may never get it,” Fjerstad said. “So therein lies the whole thing. And I think that’s one of my primary concerns and one of the questions that I keep asking that hasn’t been answered yet.”

EARLY ADOPTER

The York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Call Center was one of the first in the U.S. to accept text messages to 911. The service went live about 10 months ago. Hall said that while 75 percent of the calls to the center come from a cell phone, the texting capability is thought of as a secondary way to contact 911. He called it a tool to augment voice calls to 911 for those who can’t speak or are in danger if they are heard.

Fjerstad felt it was too early for texting to become a primary way to contact 911 and believes there are a variety of operational questions that need to be addressed. He explained that a person’s voice can provide details words can’t. Peoples’ texts can also categorize events differently than law enforcement, adding to confusion.

For example, someone texting that a robbery just occurred may actually be a simple theft, or a domestic dispute could be a verbal confrontation rather than a physical act.

“We can keep a person on the line in a domestic situation or something like that and hear things in the background – with text messaging you don’t get that,” Fjerstad said. “Much is lost in the written word. You don’t have voice inflection background noise or any of that.”

While the FCC’s proposal presents challenges, the bottom line for Hall and Fjerstad was that the changes in store for PSAPs will ultimately lead to better-informed responders and a safer public.

“Text-to-911 is an evolutionary process,” Hall said. “It’s the beginning of being able to send digital data to the 911 center in the future. It’ll be pictures, graphics and video and so-on.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.