Carriers Adopt Text-to-911, Jurisdictions Lag

All four major cell carriers have adopted text-to-911, but not all counties have adopted the imperfect technology -- and getting local governments to adopt it will be among the most difficult upcoming challenges.

by / May 15, 2014

On May 15, the four major cell providers began supporting text-to-911. Subscribers of AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon can now send text messages to 911, which will be routed to their local police dispatchers -- if the feature is supported by their county.

While all carriers now support text-to-911 functionality, most counties have not yet adopted the technology. Residents of all counties in Vermont, Iowa and Maine can use the service, as can a handful of other counties across the nation. Some states, however, have not yet adopted the technology at all -- like California. As counties consider the costs and other repercussions of implementing text-to-911 capabilities, it will likely be some time before all 6,000 dispatch centers across the country adopt the technology. This is something the FCC is urging.

The adoption of text-to-911 by the major wireless carriers reflects a growing trend in communications as people opt to text and email more as they talk less. More than 6 billion texts are sent every day according to a 2013 report by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Bryers. Text-to-911 represents a growing demand by consumers, particularly those of younger generations, but the technology is not without its foibles, as illustrated by one CNET editorial.

Texting 911 could take longer than calling, the article states. And users of text-to-911 will be automatically sending the dispatch center their location data, but dispatchers require additional information, like the cross street, details about people involved in the incident in question, or any other dangers that officers should be aware of. Texting all of that information will probably take much longer than if the user was talking.

This dynamic means call centers may need to hire more operators. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) recommended that call center operators accept no more than three conversations at a time. If text-to-911 becomes popular, it could become a burden for dispatch centers.

The medium of texting is limited in other ways as well. Voice calls can give operators a lot of additional information that the caller doesn’t need to explicitly impart, such as their emotional state, which can be heard in the tone of their voice, or the condition of the scene, which can sometimes be better understood when the operator hears sounds like shouting or gunfire. Texting relays none of that information unless the user makes it a point to write it all out, which can also take longer.

Text-to-911, in this early stage, also faces technical limitations. NENA warned call centers of the possibility of texts being routed to the wrong call center when the texter’s location is near the border of two jurisdictions. Text-to-911 also doesn’t work while the user’s phone is roaming.

The most obvious beneficiaries of text-to-911 are the speech and hearing impaired, who will now have direct access to emergency services. People who are in dangerous situations who need to call for help but need to stay quiet to stay safe will also benefit. NENA CEO Brian Fontes told CNET that getting local governments to adopt text-to-911 will be among the most difficult upcoming challenges they face.

"There's a need for leadership – both on the local and state levels – to make sure that texting will be made available," Fontes told CNET. "It would be nice if [each] state rolled out a game plan, if you will, to say, 'OK, we are committed to rolling out Text-to-911.'"