ORLANDO—As text messaging continues to grow in popularity as a communications mode, 911 centers will need to be able to accept emergency text messages—a reality that is filled with life-saving potential and challenges for call-takers, panelists said during a session this week at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Winter Summit.

For those reporting emergencies, the ability to communicate with 911 call takers via text messaging could be critical, said Nate Wilcox, chief technology officer for microDATA. Today, a 911 caller who cannot speak on the phone—for instance, someone who is trying to hide from a potential assailant—typically calls 911 and leaves the line open, which may not give the dispatcher much information. With text messaging, a 911 “caller” can provide vital descriptions, locations and other information while maintaining silence, Wilcox said.

The flip side is that the personal communications habits of 911 call-takers could impact their ability to provide service in a text environment, because “text calls would be intimidating for people who don’t normally text,” Wilcox said.

In particular, those not familiar with text messaging will need to learn quickly the vast array of acronym-based abbreviations that are used in text messaging—a concept noted in a survey conducted by Beth English, 911 specialist for the city of Longview, Tex.

“They [call-takers responding to the survey] said there would be more training needed, because they’d have to learn different acronyms and things like that,” English said.

Text messaging is just one more example of 911 call-takers requiring additional training to perform their jobs efficiently in a modern call center, English said.

“Back in the day, if you could type and had clerical skills, you could get hired, and that’s the way it’s been for the longest time,” she said. “It’s not like that now, and it’s definitely not going to be that way in the future. Just because someone can type and has clerical skills doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to do this kind of work, especially when you start taking calls by texting and things like that.”

Wilcox noted that text messaging takes many different forms—from instant messaging to short message service—and uses many different protocols, all of which the public eventually will expect 911 centers to be able to accept. While call centers need to be able to receive all forms of text messaging, it is important that call-takers be able to respond to any type of text message by using a single interface, which would increase efficiency in processing information, he said.

In addition, the panelists emphasized the need for text-messaging devices to be able to provide location information in a manner similar to cellular phones.

One audience member noted that commercial call centers reported that handlers can serve 10 customers simultaneously in a text environment, as opposed to only being able to serve one customer at a time using a voice solution. Whether such efficiencies are possible in a stressful emergency environment is questionable, but that type of information will be important to public-safety agencies as they try to determine staffing levels in 911 centers, Wilcox said.

“That type of research needs to be done,” he said.