Data on the availability of text-to-911 is spotty, so it's difficult to get a consistent national picture. However, the numbers that are available show that some states are far more advanced than others.
A man who was high on heroin and wanted by police came to his sister’s daycare center. A group of deaf people became stranded in the middle of a large lake when their boat’s motor died. A woman was kidnapped by a trucker at a rest stop, sexually assaulted and then left in the back of his cab as he drove.
These are all real stories, and in each situation the people involved either couldn’t call 911 or would have put themselves in jeopardy by doing so.
So instead, they texted. The police came to take the woman’s brother into custody, bring the boaters back to shore, arrest the truck driver and rescue his victim.
These stories — just three of countless examples that happen every day — are proof positive of why it’s important for 911 dispatchers to have the technology that allows them to receive texts instead of just phone calls. And in point of fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that emergency services provide equal access to people who can’t speak or are hard of hearing.
But most dispatch centers in the U.S., called public safety answering points (PSAPs), are not yet capable of taking text messages. They’ve made a lot of progress in the past several years, but Zainab Alkebsi, policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf, estimates that only about 15 percent of PSAPs can take text.
“Imagine being in the middle of an emergency and being unable to contact 911,” she wrote in an email to Government Technology. “That is what deaf and hard of hearing people experience when faced with an emergency, and being unable to easily obtain help.”
If one takes the number of PSAPs each state reports as being text-capable to the federal government each year and adds them up, then divides by the number of PSAPs on the Federal Communications Commission’s master PSAP registry, the data suggests that 33 percent of them were text-capable in 2018, the most recent year of data. However, for reasons discussed below, the total PSAP count is not a highly reliable figure.
To be clear: All available evidence suggests that text-to-911 has become more available to more people in more places in recent years.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s annual National 911 Progress Report shows that the number of texts sent to emergency dispatchers each year rose from about 1,000 in 2014 to more than 188,000 in 2018.
And it’s not because of a growth in the number of 911 contacts, either — texts made up 0.001 percent of all 911 calls in 2014; by 2018 they were 0.09 percent of all 911 calls.
It should be noted that emergency dispatchers prefer that people call if they’re able to and if doing so wouldn’t put them in danger. Calls often provide a more accurate location to the dispatcher and can also get other important information such as background noise.
Since emergency communications are handled on a state-by-state basis — and often on a county-by-county basis — there are big geographic disparities to text-to-911 as well.
The problem is that it’s hard to show a comprehensive, detailed picture of which locations have the option available and which don’t. The information that is available tends to be patchwork and lags a year or two.
Here’s the thing: It’s actually very difficult to tell how widely available text-to-911 is, or even to show all the places where it is. The FCC and NHTSA have made efforts to do so, but their information is largely self-reported by states and individual PSAPs, and discrepancies are rife in the data.
For example, for the 2016 National 911 Progress Report, Indiana reported to NHTSA that its 911 systems across the state received 165,199 texts — a number far, far larger than any state has reported in any other year. Ed Reuter, executive director of the Indiana Statewide 911 Board, clarified that that number included both in-bound and out-bound texts. The number of in-bound texts that year was actually 16,294. Without duplicating the process of the original survey and re-interviewing 911 staff from every state, it’s impossible to know whether there are any other such problems with the data.
There’s also the matter of not having a central, reliable count for the number of primary PSAPs in every state. Primary PSAPs are those that receive communications from people, and sometimes those are re-routed to secondary PSAPs. The FCC maintains a master registry of all PSAPs, and delineates which are primary and which are secondary, but several state emergency communications professionals contacted for this article gave Government Technology different numbers than the FCC listed for their own states. The registry relies on PSAPs to self-report to the FCC, so it could be that some entities that aren’t PSAPs under traditional definitions are telling the FCC that they are PSAPs, or it might be that some PSAPs have consolidated but haven’t yet told the federal government about their new status.
Representatives from the FCC and the National Emergency Number Association both suggested that the only way to get each state’s PSAP count would be to individually approach officials in each state.
Without that number, one can’t determine the percentage of PSAPs in each state that are capable of receiving text messages. But even with complete information, that statistic would misrepresent the availability of the technology in some places.
The state of Minnesota is a perfect example of why PSAP counts don’t tell the whole story. Despite the fact that only 34 of the state’s 97 primary PSAPs are capable of receiving text messages, anybody can text 911 anywhere in the state of Minnesota and be sure that it will reach an emergency dispatcher.
Minnesota took a regional approach to implementing the technology. In most places, regional dispatch centers will receive a text and then route it to the appropriate local PSAP.
That was a very deliberate approach, according to Emergency Communication Networks Division Director Dana Wahlberg.
“One of the decisions we made as a state before we implemented was we wanted an ubiquitous rollout, we didn’t want it to be sporadic," Wahlberg said. “We have 301 PSAPs in the state. We didn’t want 10 or 12 of them to roll it out and then have the public be confused about whether they could use the service.”
In addition to rolling it out everywhere at once when the systems went live at the end of 2017, the state also had unified operational and technical standards and one big public awareness campaign to let people know about the new option.
Other states have followed that approach, Wahlberg said. But that’s not how all states have done it — and indeed, in some states the regional strategy would be much more difficult to accomplish.
Take Texas, for example. Where Minnesota has strong central governance over its PSAPs, Texas has three different governing bodies that all handle different groups of PSAPs — one that mostly handles county dispatchers, one that handles city dispatchers and one for the state’s wide swaths of rural areas.
According to Kelli Merriweather, executive director of the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications, her state likes to give PSAPs a little more local control over how they do things. And as it happens, federal data shows that Texas was one of the first states to have text-to-911 available anywhere. But it tended to be urban centers with larger populations.
The smaller, more rural areas, which fall under the jurisdiction of the regional planning commissions, were another beast. Working with the regional commissions, Merriweather and the CSEC coordinated to come up with specifications so that they could give each area a guide for what they needed, while taking care to avoid creating a need for a lot of expensive new equipment. Some needed software patches, some needed new equipment. There was a lot of working with small, regional telecommunications firms.
But between 2017 and the end of 2019, every regional planning commission became text-ready. And now Texas, which was the first state with a significant level of text-to-911 availability, is among the few states with wide geographic availability of the service.
“It’s hard with such a vast area like that and all the diversity of equipment in the PSAPs out there,” she said. “It takes a long time to turn the ship.”
Indiana is another state that jumped onto text-to-911 early, but has relied on individual areas to adopt it on their own. Reuter, director of the 911 board, said the technology has spread as early adopters have demonstrated success and shared best practices.
“There were initial concerns that this was going to cause more work for the dispatchers … they might have to hire more people,” Reuter said. “Well, it’s really proved otherwise, because the generation of telecommunicators that has been brought in over the last few years, this is all they’ve really known.”
One of the practices that’s spread across Indiana is texting citizens back when they call 911 and the call is dropped. That method, which Reuter said came from his time at the PSAP in Bartholomew County in the southeastern part of the state, has become so popular across the state that most PSAPs send far more texts than they receive.
“When that call comes in, instead of calling them back — and it could be that they could be in a dangerous situation or unable to talk — dispatch would send them a message,” he said.
It’s hard to know how widespread text-to-911 is. But what’s even less knowable is the number of times, every day, all across the country, that people who can’t speak, people who are hard of hearing and people who are in dangerous situations are unable to reach an emergency dispatcher because their local systems can’t take texts.
All we know is that the number is far larger than zero.
That could have very real life-and-death consequences for many people. But it also means the removal of some people from civic institutions. Wahlberg, the emergency communications director in Minnesota, told a story of a time when a woman in her state who was hard of hearing and non-verbal came across a car in a ditch. She texted 911 to alert the authorities, and the situation was resolved. Her texts with the local dispatchers included a little more, too: pride.
“Because text was available, she felt she was able to help a fellow citizen,” Wahlberg said.