View from the Top

Minnesota starts regionally in pursuit of statewide text-to-911 implementation

Deploying text-to-911 service regionally is the fastest, simplest and most efficient way to provision a lifesaving service that the public not only expects, but craves.

By the end of 2017, each of the regions were in position to do a soft launch of the service, and a public-education campaign was launched. However, with 104 PSAPs in the state, it will be some time before all Minnesota PSAPs are able to provision text-to-911 service. One reason is that many PSAPs employ legacy call-handling equipment that cannot accept and process 911 texts. In addition, vendors are being besieged by upgrade requests from across the country.

Several challenges needed to be overcome to get to this point. A big one occurred at the very beginning. The first phase of the project was to deploy text-to-911 service to one PSAP in each of the seven regions. This was a strategic decision designed to dramatically speed the implementation to bring this lifesaving service to the public as quickly as possible—one PSAP in each region would handle all text-to-911 calls within the region’s jurisdictional boundary and then, over time, the rest of the PSAPs in the region would turn up the service and take responsibility for those calls in their jurisdiction and so on.

However, we were surprised to discover how difficult it was to find seven PSAPs whose call-handling equipment was at the appropriate software version or had the financial capabilities to upgrade

There also have been technology challenges. During testing with one of the major national carriers, text-to-911 calls were misrouted, ending up in PSAPs in relatively nearby Fargo, N.D., and as far away as Oakland County, Mich., which is near Detroit. Fortunately, the problem was rectified easily by having the carrier reprogram its switches. In another case, we encountered rebid issues with two of the carriers—in some cases the rebid failed to connect, and in others erroneous location information was generated—that will need to be resolved by each carrier’s TCC.

The moral of each of these anecdotes is that every PSAP considering a text-to-911 implementation should expect the unexpected, because even when you plan well, things go awry. An important lesson learned is that there should be no limit to the number of times one repeats key messages during the text-to-911 implementation.

During an eight-month period, we communicated regularly with the initial seven regional text-to-911 PSAPs and stressed that they would remain live once carrier testing was completed. Although the public-education campaign had yet to begin—so they wouldn’t be receiving an onslaught of 911 texts—it was possible that they might receive some live texts, so they needed to be ready.

Despite these instructions, one PSAP had to be turned down indefinitely, because it neglected to train its staff and failed to plot latitude and longitude with the text-control-center vendor.

While Minnesota is off to a great start in deploying text-to-911 service, there is much still to do.

There is the matter of turning up all of the PSAPs in the state. A little further into the future, we would like to add text from 911, which is a vital way of alerting citizens when a major emergency incident is about to affect them. This capability is designed to let citizens prepare for the incident or give them enough time to get out of harm’s way—either way, more lives will be saved. Longer term, we want to explore provisioning text-to-911 functionality as a hosted service, which will make it even easier and dramatically less costly for PSAPs to implement it.

The public has a strong expectation that they should be able to send a text to 911 anytime, anyplace—and the public safety sector has an equally strong responsibility to meet this expectation.

As we continue to deploy additional Minnesota PSAPs, we are maintaining a keen awareness of the need to be prepared to upgrade from Short Message Service (SMS)-based text-to-911 service to one that leverages Real-Time Text (RTT) and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) as technology continues to evolve.

It is really an ongoing process—and we have only dipped our toes in the water thus far.There is more work to be done.

Dana Wahlberg is director of Emergency Communications Networks (ECN), a division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. She can be emailed at dana.wahlberg@state.mn.us.

 

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