An Iowa call center yesterday announced that it has become the first in the country to successfully receive text messages sent directly to 911 and expects to offer the service beginning next month.

While many public-safety answering points (PSAPs) have taken steps to be able to receive text messages outside the 911 infrastructure, the Black Hawk Consolidated Public Safety Communications Center in Black Hawk County, Iowa, has demonstrated the ability to receive text messages within the 911 system. Such native 911 reception of text messages is one of the promises of next-generation 911 centers, but Black Hawk County’s PSAP is a Phase 2–capable center with targeted enhancements, said John Snapp, senior technical officer for Intrado.

"It can be done to existing PSAPs," Snapp said. "They don’t have to completely switch to next-generation [systems]; it’s a stepping stone to get there."

The Black Hawk solution included upgrading CPE equipment with special software, improving reliability with redundant high-speed data links and having commercial wireless service provider i wireless — a T-Mobile affiliate in the Midwest — route 911 texts directly into Intrado’s redundant national gateway, Snapp said. The solution should be a "stepping stone," because the equipment and software can be leveraged in a next-generation architecture.

During the trial phase, only a couple of Black Hawk call stations could receive Short Message Service (SMS) communications, but all stations in the PSAP are expected to have this capability when the launch is done in July, Snapp said.

"We’ve got SMS, but it's passing it through a gateway in the middle and delivering it into the 911 center just like a regular voice call," he said. "So, when a text message comes in, it rings at the call station just a regular 911 call and queues like a 911, so it's in the native network, even though it’s in the data system instead of the voice system."

Such text-messaging capability is especially important to those in the speech- and hearing-impaired communities, which have been migrating from 911-capable equipment like TTY devices to commercial texting equipment that is not linked directly to PSAPs.

"The successful testing of text messaging to 911 from a wireless telephone is a tremendous emergency services advancement for individuals who have sensory disabilities," said Richard Ray, chair of the National Emergency Number Association's (NENA) Accessibility Committee, in a prepared statement. "I urge public-safety agencies to accelerate the deployment of this technology and to encourage, support and celebrate efforts such as this."

Currently, the biggest challenge associated with text-based emergency messages is that location data is not associated automatically with the message, so the 911 caller is prompted to manually give that information, so the Intrado gateway can route the call to the appropriate PSAP, Snapp said. There is hope that automated location information similar to that associated with wireless voice calls will be available when the service is launched next month, he said.

"Unfortunately, if it’s outside the Black Hawk area, there's no default PSAP — at this point — that can take the call, so we have to give them a message saying that texting to 911 is not supported in their area and to call 911," Snapp said, noting that this scenario will be less of a problem as the solution is deployed throughout the country.

Another major limitation is that carrier’s must be a willing participant, so is likely that only i wireless customers will be able to text to the Black Hawk PSAP next month.

Besides Intrado and i wireless, other companies involved in the Black Hawk text-messaging trial include Positron Public Safety — acquired by Intrado last year — and RACOM, a local Positron distributor serving Black Hawk, Snapp said.

Eventually, Intrado hopes to enable a 911 caller to speak and send data simultaneously to a PSAP, but the Black Hawk solution currently supports either text or voice exclusively.

Intrado has not determined a pricing structure for the solution, Snapp said.