The National Emergency Number Association and Telecom-Xchange International, a telecommunications testing and performance company, announced June 14 the creation of a new assessment process to ensure equipment used by 911 centers to communicate with hearing-impaired callers works accurately and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Historically, when a TTY caller sent a message to a public-safety answering point (PSAP), there was uncertainty regarding whether the message was communicated properly because the electrical signals that traveled over regular phone lines had to be converted back into text.

If the telephone link connecting the text telephony (TTY) to the PSAP was not properly working, the entire meaning of the message — even if off by one letter — could be altered in a manner that could have devastating consequences in an emergency. Consequently, a 1% or less total character error rate (TCER) was imposed to make sure the telephone link is accurately functioning, but emergency centers had no means of checking these lines.

Known as TTY-PASS, the new automated system is designed to help 911 dispatchers meet ADA standards mandating that every emergency operator have access to text-based telecommunications devices for the deaf and regularly test such equipment, said NENA Executive Director Robert Martin.

At a TTY Testing Forum, various stakeholders from the wireless industry — 911 dispatchers, hearing-impaired consumers, TTY manufactures and NENA and ADA representatives — experienced firsthand the potential ineffectiveness of TTY equipment, when a TTY message was miscommunicated, according to NENA.

NENA always has been committed to addressing safety issues and ensuring that callers' communications are understood clearly in an emergency, so it is natural for the organization to seek equal levels of service and access for TTY users, said Toni Dunne, southeast regional vice president and chairman of NENA's ADA/Accessibility Committee who works for Positron911.

TTY-PASS transmits a 3-minute test script to the 911 operator's TTY. The PSAP then copies the received text into a secure Web site and is given a score. To receive a passing score, the TTY must have a 1% or less TCER, according to founders of the program.

“The TTY at the call-taker's position goes to the server, where it goes through a play test script, almost like an obstacle course for the TTY. … Different sounds are thrown into the line, the volume goes up and down, and there are momentary breaks of silence, all to throw off the original signal,” said Ed Hall, Telecom-Xchange's founder, who oversaw the development of the system.

The program seeks to rectify the problem 911 centers have had trying to maintain systems that meet required standards. Prior to the TTY-PASS, dispatchers had no convenient or cost-effective method to frequently test TTY's performance levels. Over time, it was discovered that some PSAPs did not meet the technical specifications within the emergency site's TTY equipment because of network-related reasons or congested signals, Dunne said.

The idea of a TTY test was first discussed almost four years ago, but production for a Web-based solution didn't start until earlier this year. NENA and TelecomXchange joined in partnership and through multiple meetings concentrated on finding a way to test the equipment and fulfill ADA requirements for PSAPs.

To be considered for production, a solution had to use cost-effective testing materials, and it needed to work for many different systems across the nation, Martin said. TelecomXchange, Lober and Walsh Engineering, and Gallaudet University — a four-year college for the deaf and hearing-impaired — worked to create a system that would satisfy these demands.

NENA promotes and markets the program to the PSAPs, while TelecomXchange creates the technology behind the system, said members of both companies.

“The Web-based system works, makes sense and is easy and cost-effective to use,” Hall said. “The real beauty of our system is that it puts the control of testing in the hands of the PSAP. When time permits … you can take three to five minutes to test a TTY position.”

NENA directors noted the original system was going to consist of equipment that would be sent around to different emergency sites, but a Web-based solution was deemed to be more feasible.

Wendi Lively, quality assurance coordinator at the Spartanburg County (S.C.) Communication Center, was involved in the beta testing for the program and the first PSAP to register for testing. Lively said she is optimistic about the effectiveness of this program.

“This is a good way to score; it is a good feeling, knowing that you are receiving an accurate report of what you did,” she said. “[Previously, there were] always ways to perform the tests, but they were never automated like this; the call volume for TTY users was low, and there were very few TTY calls.”

“When a line doesn't work, people die — it's a mission-critical life line. We struggled with how to do specific things to keep lines open,” NENA's Martin said. “And, because the test is in a virtual environment, we believe the system will mature with use. As the PSAPs find ways to make it simpler, it should be easy to add improvements or make changes as technology advances.”

TTY-PASS testing scores are kept to maintain a testing record and act as a history for documentation to show consistency among the systems. PSAPs can register online at www.telecomxchange.com. Regular testing for 12 months costs $75.