Urgent Matters

Lots of moving parts to implementing text to 911

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There are numerous challenges associated with public-safety answering points (PSAPs) supporting text-to-911 service, but the need for this capability is so compelling that the 911 community must do everything possible to deploy it as soon as possible.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column that focused on the need for text-to-911 services. There are those—count David Turetsky, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau among them—that believe the ability to receive emergency texts will be the most vital of all the next-generation capabilities that public-safety answering points (PSAPs) someday will have at their disposal.

Indeed, text-to-911 service already has saved a few lives, which is even more impressive when you consider that there only are a few places in the U.S. that currently have this capability. For instance, earlier this year in the state of Vermont, first responders prevented a suicide after a text was received from a man who indicated that he intended to end his life.

I agree with Turetsky. It will be nice for PSAPs to receive video from the field when next-generation 911 becomes available, because it will enhance situational awareness—always a good thing when lives are at stake. However, that capability falls into the “nice to do” bucket. In contrast, the ability of a college student to text 911 when a gunman is loose in his dormitory—a situation that eliminates the possibility of making a 911 voice call, because the student couldn’t risk being discovered by the assailant—clearly lands in the “must do” bucket.

During the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference held in June, Turetsky and actress Marlee Matlin—a passionate advocate for the hard-of-hearing community, of which she is a member—implored our industry to implement text-to-911 services as soon as possible. I second that motion wholeheartedly.

But, as with most things in life, the devil is in the details, and when it comes to implementing text to 911, there are quite a few of them, according to Jay Malin, managing director of Agent511, a Northbrook, Ill.-based vendor that specializes in mobile messaging solutions for the public sector, who spoke on the topic during the NENA conference.

One is that J-STD-110—a standard developed jointly by the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) to create a framework for PSAPs to receive texts from multiple carriers—has a few limitations.

“There are a lot of vendors in this space, and my concern is that this is going to leave somebody with a multitude of Web portals or different implementations on their desktop—each PSAP essentially will have to manage the total technology on a per-carrier basis,” Malin said.

“And, in the context of the interoperability analysis, there still is some slight variation amongst vendors. As a result … there needs to be [some way]—whether it’s text control at a more-localized level or a second layer of ESRP—to facilitate text messaging in the context of a region or statewide network.”

Another problem is that texting can be unreliable, Malin said. Consequently, it is imperative that PSAPS train call-takers on standard operating procedures that govern delivery failures.

“There are a few reasons for delivery failures,” Malin said. “One of them, of course, is that the device has been turned off. A second one is that there may have been a temporary network failure. As many of you know, text … is a store-and-pour, best-effort technology. You don’t often see failures due to network congestion, but nevertheless, call-takers should be aware of what a failure might look like.”

Yet another consideration concerns whether—and how—texts received by a PSAP are transferred to other public-safety entities.

“Some of the platforms will allow transfers within the PSAP, but you might have unique transfer policies such that 911 is able to transfer to the police and fire, but fire can’t transfer back to police or 911,” Malin said. “You may even have PSAP-to-PSAP policies. This is something that needs to be under consideration. What do these routing policies look like, and are you communicating them to your service provider?

Some may believe that text to 911 is too much hassle, especially when one considers that the ability to send texts using TTY phones has served the deaf and hard-of-hearing community for years. But there are a few problems with the concept of large-scale TTY emergency calls. First, mainstream America doesn’t use TTY, and it clearly would benefit from the ability to place a 911 text call. Moreover, the deaf and hard-of-hearing largely has abandoned TTY in favor of cellular technology, a point that Matlin made during her keynote address at the NENA conference. Even if TTY still was in vogue, PSAPs would need to add trunks; otherwise, a large volume of TTY calls during a major incident would tie up the center’s 911 lines, Malin said.

 Anything worth doing takes some effort, and text to 911 definitely is worth doing. I hope that the industry answers the call of Turetsky and Matlin, and puts its collective shoulder to the wheel to get this done as soon as possible.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

Chaplain Dave Sparks (not verified)
on Aug 1, 2013

I have two concerns/questions:

1.) Will texts to 9-1-1 contain position data from the GPS receiver?

2.) Will text to 9-1-1 be enabled for inactivated cell phones as voice calls currently are? If so, will there be a mechanism for the dispatcher to text back, in that case, even though the phone may not be currently assigned a number which is needed for conventional texting?

Mike B (not verified)
on Aug 9, 2013

In answer to #1, no - text formats were not designed to carry GPS data in the packet stream. To include GPS would require a re-write of thet way text messages are constructed, transported, and interpreted.

Tim L (not verified)
on Aug 13, 2013

Actually, the information about the location of the caller is currently sent separate from the medium. For a voice call, the query to the ALI provides the street address of the tower, for Phase I location fixes, and the X/Y coordinate of the caller for Phase II fixes. Though Text-to-911 only requires Phase I location fixes today, Phase II fixes can be retrieved from certain phones in certain wireless networks - and the delivery mimics the way the location is delivered today.

With NG9-1-1, the media and the location fix can be sent within the same message.

The location of the caller is never delivered as part of the text message today (nor envisioned in the delivery mechanisms of the future).

Tim L (not verified)
on Aug 13, 2013

Concerning #1, the texts won't contain the info but the Phase II location fix of a caller will likely be available on most networks on phones in the next few years. Currently, Text-to-911 only is expected to only require a Phase I location fix. There have been demonstrations of Phase II location fixes (X/Y), but only with certain phones on certain networks.

Concerning #2, I don't believe the FCC is currently planning to require that the Text-to-911 service work on inactivated (otherwise known as non-initialized) cell phones. This is currently an area of great debate in the public safety community - most folks with whom I have spoken are not even in favor of having this function for voice and are fine if the FCC does not require it for text.

Donald E. Cusson (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2013

This looks like it would increase the amount of possitions needed in dispatch. Presently a dispatcher is out of service to other calls when they are doing an EMD call,

Doug (not verified)
on Aug 13, 2013

Instant Messaging serves as a better tool for silent communications than texting will. SMS requiring "a re-write" to accommodate needs is counter-intuitive. Like comparing tricycle to a Harley.

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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