Last month, the FCC ordered all cell carriers to accommodate text-to-911 systems by the end of the year, but cities in Texas and across the country have been slow to invest in the upgrades needed.
Cellphone users called 911 nearly 400,000 times a day last year. They also sent nearly 2 trillion text messages — but hardly any of those were to summon police, ambulances or firefighters.
Dispatchers in most cities, including Dallas, can’t receive text messages. The Federal Communications Commission is trying to change that, an upgrade long sought by advocates for domestic violence victims, deaf people and others.
Last month, the agency ordered all cell carriers to accommodate text-to-911 systems by the end of the year. And it said it would “strongly encourage” all dispatch agencies to embrace the technology.
But cities in Texas and across the country have been slow to invest in the upgrades needed. Some say they can’t afford it, or that the expense isn’t justified.
Advocates such as Jan Langbein, chief executive of Dallas-based Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support, say it could save lives.
“This is how we get calls: ‘He’s in the house. He’s coming up the stairs. I’m in the closet,’” Langbein said. “She could be found by her voice, and this could prevent that.”
During the Virginia Tech shooting spree in 2007, students hiding in classrooms reportedly sent texts to 911, unaware that there was no system in place to receive those texts.
The FCC notes that “many consumers believe text-to-911 is already an available service,” though consumers who text 911 where it’s not available typically receive an automated bounce-back message. And it cites an accelerating shift from calls to text messaging, along with the extra value text-to-911 has for people with speech or hearing disabilities.
In 2012, the four largest U.S. cellphone carriers — Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint and Dallas-based AT&T — voluntarily agreed to support text-to-911 nationwide by May 2014.
Under the new regulation, smaller carriers must offer the same capability by the end of December.
The mandate applies only to the cell companies, not to local dispatch agencies. Once a call center requests the service, cell providers in that area have six months to support text-to-911.
So far, few have done so.
“It’s very costly,” said Assistant Chief Patricia Paulhill of the Dallas Police Department. She was unable to provide an estimate but said the city doesn’t plan to offer the service anytime soon.
The cost varies with the size of the call center and the condition of its existing equipment. But for a major metropolitan area, building a text-to-911 system from scratch could cost more than $5 million, plus upkeep, according to the National 911 Program, a federal agency within the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Text-to-911 availability depends on a cellphone user’s physical location.
A text sent to the number “911” in a locale that offers the service will connect to a local call center where emergency services are dispatched in response to calls and texts. Outside such jurisdictions, a cell user would receive an automated bounce-back message stating the service is not available.
Only two relatively small states — Maine and Vermont — offer text-to-911 statewide. Roughly 2 percent of all dispatch centers nationwide offer the service, according to the FCC. The service is available in parts of Texas and 15 other states.
According to the FCC, about 4 percent of the population lives in an area that’s covered by text-to-911.
Paulhill said Dallas plans to eventually implement Next Generation 911. That system will support texts, calls, instant messages, and video from phones and computers. But it is still “several years away,” she said.
Sheffie Kadane, who chairs the Dallas City Council’s public safety committee, said he hadn’t given much thought to upgrading the city’s dispatch center to receive pleas for help via text.
Although the city of Dallas doesn’t provide text-to-911 service, some nearby jurisdictions do.
All of Collin County supports the service. But it isn’t offered anywhere in Denton County. A handful of police departments in Dallas County can receive emergency texts: Balch Springs, Cockrell Hill, Sachse, Seagoville and Wilmer.
But texts still account for only a fraction of 911 requests in North Texas.
The North Central Texas Council of Governments oversees 44 call centers in a 16-county region that includes Dallas, Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties.
Of those centers, 25 have text-to-911 capability, and the rest will have it by the end of September, said Christy Williams, chief 911 program officer for the agency.
Since the service launched in January 2013, dispatchers at these centers have received only 12 text messages, compared with more than a million 911 calls, she said.
“It is a problem that we don’t have this level of service in more places. The FCC action alone will not fix the problem” Williams said, adding that jurisdictions are reluctant to adopt the service because of the time and cost needed for implementation.
Despite the slow rollout, text-to-911 advocates praise the FCC for prodding cell companies to make the service available.
“The FCC’s recent order is a huge step in the right direction,” said Andrew Phillips,policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf.
For people with hearing or speech impairments, services are available to relay text messages to a 911 operator.
But Phillips, who is deaf, said putting that capability directly in the hands of anyone with a cellphone would be a big improvement.
“Most of us have to call 911 through relay services, and there can be delays/problems when using relay,” Phillips said.
At the North Central Texas Council of Governments, Williams encourages 911 users to call instead of text whenever possible, because dispatchers can collect more detailed information. Calls also provide a more reliable location.
But she said she recognizes that text messaging is becoming a primary form of communication.
“We have to keep up with technology,” she said. “We have to meet the public’s expectations.”
©2014 The Dallas Morning News