In today’s modern communications, texting is quickly becoming king. Millions of people in the U.S. send trillions of text messages to chat with a friend, order a pizza, vote for a reality TV contestant, donate money or even activate their home security system. Yet, despite the fact that texting has become a primary means of communication for much of the population, it is still unavailable across the majority of the country as a way to contact 9-1-1. How can that be?
It appears that many wireless service providers and public safety answering points (PSAPs) have been hesitant to use text for emergency communications due to concerns about reliability, connectivity, delivery problems, timely issues, overloading call takers, abuse of service, difficulty deciphering text language, etc. The proof is in the pudding. Waterloo, Iowa, Durham, N.C and the entire state of Vermont have adopted this new technology and it is working. These PSAPs’ experiences with text-to-9-1-1 technology prove that in actual deployments the original concerns have not been an issue and the systems work very well. Also, in large scale testing that we have done (SMS Reliability Study) text messaging, if implemented properly, can be made extremely reliable without significant delays and is a very valuable means for people to communicate with 9-1-1 in addition to voice calling. In fact, not only is the service working, these PSAPs have witnessed multiple scenarios where the ability to text in an emergency situation has saved lives.
In one situation, a 9-1-1 call taker received a text message indicating that the caller was witnessing the distribution of drugs at the time of the call. The call taker expertly queried the caller to ascertain the exact location of the drug deal, the type of drugs involved, whether weapons were present and the number of people at the scene.
In a separate event, a woman had locked herself in her bedroom because her ex-boyfriend broke into her home. Scared, she texted 9-1-1. Law enforcement responded to the call and officers were able to make an arrest. Had the woman called instead of texting, the ex-boyfriend would have heard her calling for help.
In both situations, text capabilities allowed the caller to safely disclose valuable information they would not have been able to provide via voice call because it would have put them in danger. In both instances, police were able to arrive on the scene with accurate information that allowed them to intervene and make arrests without harm to the caller.
There have also been many texts to 9-1-1 from children in abusive situations. Texting is the preferred mode of everyday communications for kids. It appears that these children are much more willing to ask for help over text and to share information than they would over a voice call to 9-1-1.
While voice calls are still the best way to contact 9-1-1, there is no doubt that text as a primary means of communication is here to stay. As the emergency communications community strives to catch up with modern communications, it is essential that text-to-9-1-1 capabilities be implemented as soon as possible. Today, a large portion of the public erroneously believes they can contact 9-1-1 via text and that is simply unacceptable.
With a select number of pilots underway across the country, it has clearly been demonstrated that text is easy-to-use, secure and effective as a means to communicate with citizens in need of emergency help. Further testing has proven that the technology is reliable, secure and in line with i3. The addition of text capabilities has to happen at some point…why not now? We owe it to our citizens to offer them this potentially life-saving service.