About 15 years ago, the first wireless 911 call was successfully made from a mobile device. Fast-forward nine years to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. On the day of the shootings, many students sent text messages to 911, but those messages were never received by law enforcement officials. Students had no way of knowing that their texts were going into an abyss.

In the last year, a handful of jurisdictions have started implementing technology that allows citizens to send text messages to one of the country’s 6,500 public safety answering points (PSAPs). The technology should be available nationwide by May 2014 as a result of the FCC's "Next Generation 9-1-1" project -- a partnership with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, the four largest mobile carriers.

In March, Frederick County became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to make this service available to customers of Verizon Wireless. The county began conversations with Verizon last fall, recognizing that the Text-to-911 movement was gaining momentum.

“Our goal is to not be passively sitting and waiting,” said Jack Markey, Director of Frederick County’s Division of Emergency Management, “but to be part of moving that forward.”

According to Markey, the county currently receives 65 percent of its 911 calls from wireless devices. Verizon Wireless and TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), a facilitator for wireless communications, approached Maryland’s Emergency Numbers System Board — of which Markey is a member — about moving forward with a Text-to-911 pilot.

The service is available to Verizon Wireless customers whose handheld device is affiliated with a Verizon cell phone tower within Frederick County. If the tower is located outside the land boundary of Frederick County, the receiving tower will not know how to route the message.

TCS Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Tim Lorello explained the challenge of using a mobile device to communicate with a 911 operator.

“911 is primarily tied to your landline service, and they look up your street address in a database,” Lorello said. “Wireless phones messed up the whole model because you’re mobile. So we inserted ourselves in the middle of the call flow. In 2000, if you dialed 911 from a mobile device, the call would be blocked because they didn’t know where to send the call. So TCS gives the call taker a number that looks like a local landline number and then provides the operator with the exact location.”

Text messaging follows a similar model.

“TCS receives the text message and then we go back into the network and try to get your location fix,” Lorello said. “Once we’ve got that, we know what PSAP you’re in, and we can send the text message.”

According to Forrester Research, more than 6 billion text messages were sent each day in the United States in 2011. TCS facilitates about one-third of these messages, making it the No. 1 text message provider to wireless companies in the United States.

As text messaging continues to increase in popularity, Lorello said that even when Text-to-911 is commonplace, calling the emergency operator is a better choice in most cases. However, there are three circumstances in which texting 911 will have particular value:

  • Situations where the user is deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Voice-sensitive instances in which the texter does not want to be heard (i.e. Virginia Tech).
  • Cases where citizens can't call 911 because the lines are blocked due to high-call frequency (i.e. 9/11 in New York City).

Aside from educating staff, the implementation will not have a direct cost to PSAPs.

“People need to be prepared and be in a learning mindset,” Markey said. “We recognize that since this is a pilot that there are going to be things that we’re going to learn so we can share those lessons with the state of Maryland and all other TCS and Verizon customers.”

There have been similar Text-to-911 trials in North Carolina, Iowa and Vermont. Frederick County plans to support all wireless carriers as the technology becomes more broadly available.

“We’re part of the marketplace as citizens,” Markey said. “And we want to be ready to deliver that service as soon as we can because the citizens expect it.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Jessica Renee Napier  |  Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.