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FCC commissioners are expressing a desire to address myriad issues associated with 911 service and the technologies that consumers use, but there are significant questions whether the FCC has the legal authority to provide a comprehensive solution to the emergency-calling sector.
commissioners unanimously approved a policy statement calling for all providers of text-messaging services to enable text-to-911 functionality by the end of the year. Perhaps even more important, statements made by commissioners throughout last week’s meeting indicated a sense of urgency to address gaps in the 911 system that are growing wider as technology continues to evolve.
Public-safety representatives have criticized FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s statements that public-safety answering points (PSAPs) need to “step up” to the text-to-911 effort, noting that 911 funds often have been raided leaving little funding to pay for the technology needed to accept emergency texts directly into the 911 system.
We’ve written numerous columns opposing such fund raids whereby states take money collected for 911 to address shortfalls in other areas of the budget. Wheeler also expressed disdain for the practice, but the reality is that other factors are involved in the "underwhelming” response from PSAPs to the notion of supporting text to 911 that the chairman referenced.
Once PSAPs have the IP connectivity necessary to support, text-to-911 solutions can be implemented with relative ease, as has been the case in states like Vermont. However, for PSAPs without the underlying IP infrastructure, the text-to-911 offerings designed to operate over the legacy system typically have been lacking.
In addition, there are some PSAPs that are very worried about the operational impacts that text to 911 could have. Call-takers have expressed concern that they could be overwhelmed by a flood of 911 texts, and that they will need special training just to understand all the shortcuts routinely used in the texting arena. To date, PSAPs that can accept 911 texts have received only a small volume of emergency texts, but the reality is that little public education has been done to let citizens know that texting to 911 is even an option.
Many in public safety will take exception to Wheeler’s statement, but they should be mindful that Wheeler headed CTIA—a trade association for commercial wireless carriers—when E-911 rules for wireless location accuracy were adopted by the FCC in 2005. Carriers were required to take the steps necessary to meet these mandates, but pockets of PSAPs throughout the nation still are not equipped to accept this information. My guess is that Wheeler does not want a repeat of this scenario in the text-to-911 arena.