Durham, N.C., Begins Public Pilot for Texting 911

Live test of system infrastructure and concepts of operation to run through January 2012.

by Corey McKenna / August 11, 2011
Photo courtesy of Photoeuphoria | Dreamstime.com Photoeuphoria | Dreamstime.com

While texting has become a popular mode of communication, enabling public safety answering points to join the conversation in times of emergencies has proven difficult. 

Durham, N.C., began accepting text messages sent to its 911 dispatch center by Verizon Wireless customers on a pilot basis on Aug. 3. The test is expected to run through January 2012.

Local public safety officials see texting 911 as a way to reach hard-of-hearing individuals and people in situations where making noise could put them in greater danger.

In addition, media reports have highlighted instances in which disaster survivors were able to send text messages when their wireless phones did not have enough signal to complete a call.

As part of the pilot, Verizon Wireless configured its system to allow text messages to be sent to the Durham Emergency Communications Center, which installed software that recognizes that a text message sent to 911 is an emergency message. This means a text message sent to 911 by a Verizon Wireless subscriber within Durham is routed to the appropriate call center. Both the city’s communications center and Verizon are using Intrado systems to handle the messages.

Calls from cell phones to the center are accompanied by the caller’s phone number and an approximate location based on the nearest cell tower. However, text messages are not routed through Verizon Wireless’ enhanced-911 infrastructure in the same way, spokeswoman Debra Lewis  wrote in an e-mail. Because of this, a text message sent to the 911 call center would not be recognized by Verizon as an emergency message, so location information would not be sent. 

When a message comes in on Durham’s Intrado next-generation 911 system, an icon on the dispatcher’s screen lights up and the dispatcher hears a ringing sound. Clicking on the icon retrieves the message and begins the exchange. “The first question they’ll ask is ‘Where are you?’” said James Soukup, emergency communications director for Durham.  “Unless they tell us that, we can’t help them.”

From there the dispatcher can get other details from the subscriber to pass on to responders.

The Technical Factors

From a technical perspective, two things need to happen for public safety answering points (PSAPs) to receive text messages sent from 911, according to Dami Hummel, vice president and general manager of Intrado’s mobility division. First, the carrier needs to set up its network to route all short message service (SMS) text messages to its 911 services vendor, which aggregates the messages and routes them to the appropriate PSAP. PSAPs need to have software installed that knows what to do with them.

“The beauty with the SMS solution is that the protocols and interfaces for SMS are already developed and there are standards today for that,” Hummel said. “Now the vendors have to develop how they’re going to receive SMS and how the guts of the systems work.”

So far, several factors have prevented PSAPs from accepting text messages during emergencies. These include a lack of federal regulations governing the use of SMS standards in relation to 911 and a lack of funds for PSAPs to upgrade their systems. However, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, the FCC unveiled a five-step plan to move the nation onto next-generation 911, which includes facilitating the completion and implementation of technical standards.

Issues to be evaluated in the Durham pilot include the speed of message delivery, the use of the three-digit number instead of a standard telephone number, and if text messages can be sent when a subscriber’s phone doesn’t have a strong enough signal for a voice call .

Other jurisdictions, such as Marion County, Fla., have set up text-to-911 systems that require messages be sent to 10-digit numbers. Hummel said a variety of systems have routed messages in ways that didn’t always get messages to call-takers in a timely fashion.

Prior to the public pilot, the Durham Emergency Communications Center conducted internal testing that looked at scenarios including how it would handle multiple text messages that are received at once and what impact that could have on response. “Will it just take us longer to respond if you’re No. 30?” Soukup said. “That’s one aspect of it.”

As of Aug. 5, the center had not received any text messages from Verizon subscribers.  

“If one message means we saved a life, it’s been effective,” Soukup said.