Urgent Matters

Public education key for effective text-to-911 implementation


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With the nationwide wireless carriers committed to support text-to-911 service, it is important that clear messages are delivered to the general public about the capabilities—and the technical and geographical limitations—of seeking emergency help via text.

Beginning today, the four nationwide U.S. wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile—have agreed to provide text-to-911 functionality to any public-safety answering points (PSAPs) that have the technology to receive them and request the service. The four carriers made the commitment in a voluntary agreement and the terms are expected to serve as the foundation of a broader FCC text-to-911 rulemaking.

But the carriers’ commitment does not mean that text-to-911 generally will be available to the public, because that only will happen when PSAPs are ready. To date, less than 5% are in this position, and most of them are scattered randomly, with notable exceptions like the state of Vermont.

As a result, the text-to-911 landscape is very much a hit-and-miss proposition at the moment and will be for years to come. This reality also makes educating the general public about text-to-911 capability a much more challenging endeavor than it would be if its availability were ubiquitous to all.

Where available, the message of text-to-911 functionality is relatively simple and being adopted throughout the communications industry: “Call when you can. Text when you can’t.” In an emergency, calling 911 is quicker and more efficient, so texting to 911 should be reserved to those in the speech/hearing-impaired community and those who are afraid that speaking to a call-taker could endanger them—for example, someone trying to hide from a potential assailant.

However, this basic message is complicated by the patchwork quilt of areas that actually support text-to-911 services, as noted by Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

“If you only have one PSAP serving metro areas that support text to 911and others that do not, then you are not going to want to go out with a lot of promotion of this for fear that folks across the area will think that they will be able to text to 911,” Fontes said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications.

Indeed, Fontes said he would like to encourage PSAPs in a geographic region to try to coordinate their deployments of equipment to support text-to-911 capability, making it easier to educate the public and easier for the public to understand. While this is a great idea, it may not be practical in many cases, because each PSAP can be in a different financial situation, with unique technical and operational priorities.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

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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