The 911 alert was clear enough: The San Bernardino, Calif., woman was having a heart attack. But this 911 call was different: The woman was deaf and couldn’t use a regular phone. She texted and emergency responders saved her life.
Across the country in Bartholomew County, Ind., an early-morning 911 call ended abruptly after the dispatcher heard a voice on the line call out “drop the weapon.” Unable to reconnect the call, the dispatcher was able to text with the caller, directing police to defuse the situation.
Americans are more than twice as likely to text as call using a cell phone, according to market research from Nielsen. Yet across the nation, texting 911 is more likely to result in an automatic bounce-back message than emergency response. Despite Federal Communications Commission rules encouraging text-to-911 capability, only about 850 of more than 6,500 nationwide 911 call centers were equipped to take text messages as of March 2017, according to the FCC.
The issue is particularly acute among the disabled, especially those with speech or hearing impairments.
“In California alone, you’ve got almost a half million people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” says L. Vance Taylor, chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs in California’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Text 911 is only available in about 10 percent of the state. “For them, and for individuals with speech-related difficulties, 911 has been and continues to be a limited resource.”
Technologically, today’s 911 systems have advanced only slightly since emergency calling was instituted in the 1960s, built on an analog system of hard-wired connections that has only slowly adapted to today’s wireless and internet-connected world. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has changed. Back then, every call came from a conventional landline. Today, more than 80 percent of 911 emergency calls come from mobile devices and many homes no longer have landlines, instead relying on mobile or voice-over-Internet Protocol (VOIP) connections. That presents problems for a system designed generations earlier.
Future Next Generation 911 (NG9-1-1) systems will support improved connections, high-speed location data, text, photos and video. But it could take a decade or longer to bring those systems online across the country.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) is developing standards for NG9-1-1 and in some parts of the country, communities have begun installing next-generation systems. Massachusetts and Indiana are both nearing completion of statewide efforts. In other areas, individual counties and groups of counties launched programs and began seeking information and proposals from vendors to replace their legacy 911 systems.
“Today’s 911 system is built on technology that was built in the 1960s and ‘’70s and deployed in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Trey Fogarty, NENA director of government affairs at a March 29 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “These systems make it very difficult to move calls around, ensure availability and defend networks against new forms of attacks.”
Procurement and installation will take time. California, the nation’s most populous state and often a national trendsetter, developed an NG9-1-1 plan and signed contracts with several suppliers in 2016, but officials there believe they still need a more comprehensive game plan. That plan is now in draft form and should be completed by June, according to Walter “Budge” Currier, 9-1-1 Branch Manager for Cal OES. Once approved, he aims to begin discussions with local community public safety access points (PSAPs), or 911 call centers, in July, followed by vendor discussions in August.
With 443 PSAPs across the state, each controlled by local sheriff and police departments, the transition will be a major challenge, involving hundreds of different state and local governments and organizations. Currier’s office has full jurisdiction to drive the process. Even so, he acknowledges the state can’t wait for NG9-1-1 before providing text access to emergency services.
Only about one out of 10 PSAPs in California supported text-to-911 as of March, Currier says, but by summer’s end, the number of text-capable PSAPs will more than quadruple to nearly 200 — nearly half the state.
Cellular phone service providers have six months from the time a PSAP alerts them they are capable of accepting 911 texts until the time they are required to deliver such messages, according to FCC regulations. Most providers beat the deadline. But turning on 911 service requires more than just technology. The community must be alerted, and attention must be paid to neighboring jurisdictions, as well. PSAP coverage areas don’t necessarily follow county lines and highways, mountains and rivers may be all that separate two coverage areas. If a service works on one side of the highway and not the other, the community doesn’t have a reliable solution.
“We’re trying to deploy it on a county-wide basis so that whole groups can go at once,” Currier says. When a citizen texts 911 and there is no system in place, cellular carriers are required to provide a bounce-back message alerting the sender that the message was not delivered. That takes time that cannot be spared in most emergencies.
The state originally considered waiting on text-to-911 service until NG9-1-1 was online. But once it was clear that would take years, it became obvious an interim solution was necessary. Adding text-911 services to existing services is relatively fast, simple and inexpensive.
Fairfax County, Va., installed an interim text-to-911 system in 2015, even as it was preparing for an NG9-1-1 build out. Similarly, New York City – among other jurisdictions – seeks an interim text-to-911 capability to provide a bridge to the future and NG9-1-1. Waiting might make fiscal sense, but not fielding a short-term text solution doesn’t square well with the public.
“How do you tell someone with an autistic child who can only text, ‘Sorry, we don’t have an emergency call system for you?’” says Ed Naybor, a vice president with General Dynamics Information Technology, prime contractor for Massachusetts’ NG9-1-1 system. “It’s hard to wait.”
Taylor of Cal OES, goes a step further: “This is a basic system and service,” he says. “It’s something we want everyone to have access to.”
NG9-1-1 will go much further, notes NENA’s Forgety. “NG911 has native support for voice, video, text, pictures and data and built in resiliency and reliability features,” along with the ability to map and visualize in three dimensions where a call is coming from inside a building, which is critical in big cities where apartment and office towers can rise up 30 or 50 stories or more.
Taylor acknowledged how valuable those features will be someday, but he argues advances are needed now, not just when those are ready later “It’s easy to get lost in the cool factor of a next-generation system that will support photos and video and all that stuff,” he says. “But text is an imperative. Waiting isn’t an option.”
Adds Currier: “It’s an interim solution we need so we can reach as many folks as we can – today, not a couple of years from now.”
Text technology is also evolving. Today’s short message service (SMS) standard wasn’t designed with emergency communications in mind.
“Although users may equate texting with real-time communications, that’s not accurate,” says Stephen Ashurkoff, Director of Public Safety Solutions at GDIT. SMS messages are burst communications and can be delayed by numerous factors, from a weak battery to a weak signal.
“A user traversing the middle ground between two cell towers or riding in a vehicle travelling faster than 35 mph is likely to face delivery delays, as are users operating on two different cellular networks,” Ashurkoff says. “And since cell networks slow when traffic picks up, delivery may be slowest when it’s needed most.”
But SMS does have one advantage: It’s a standard supported by every U.S. wireless carrier. Indeed, it’s the only messaging standard that can make that claim.
Next-generation cellular networks and emergency services will replace SMS with something better, though exactly what is not yet clear. Currier anticipates communications so fast that characters will move as they’re typed. According to a white paper published by the Ad Hoc National SMS Text-to-9-1-1 Service Coordination Group (SCG), future networks will support Multimedia Emergency Services (MMES), for which the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) is the standards-setting body. “MMES will allow for simultaneous use of pictures, videos, text, and voice between an emergency caller and a PSAP,” the paper states. 5G MMES standards are still being finalized.
NG9-1-1 will revolutionize the way the public alerts first responders to emergencies. But for the next few years, as governments line up funding and secure plans for upgrading their 911 infrastructure, those same agencies will have to choose whether to invest in a short-term text-to-911 solution or risk lives by choosing to wait.