It’s been two years since Black Hawk County, Iowa, was announced as the location of the first public-safety answering point (PSAP) to accept 911 calls directly into the emergency-calling system, but its participating wireless carriers were regional operators.

But one of the largest wireless carriers in the nation — Verizon Wireless — recently announced that it is participating in a six-month trial to enable customers in Durham County, N.C., to send 911 texts to the Durham Emergency Communications Center via technology from Intrado.

“We’ve stressed to the public that it’s only for two primary purposes,” said James Soukup, director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center. “One is text us if calling us puts you in serious jeopardy, and the other is for the deaf and hearing impaired. We’ve stressed to not text us for non-emergencies, and if you can call us, call us.”

Indeed, a voice call to 911 is more efficient, because the emergency caller and the call taker can exchange information more quickly, because they do not have to wait for each other to type and read a text message, Soukup said.

But there are times when calling 911 simply isn’t an option, and being able to offer a texting option in such situations could save lives, Soukup said.

“If talking to us is going to result in a bad guy hearing you talking to 911, that would be an incident when you would want to text us,” he said. “That gives you an avenue you never had before, because most of the time, residents wouldn’t even call, because they would be in danger.”

From a PSAP standpoint, handling a text call operationally is no different than taking a TDD call from someone who is hearing- or speech-impaired, Soukup said. Key questions are preprogrammed into the console, so they can be asked quickly by the call taker, he said.

And the first question typically will be the emergency caller’s location, because Durham texting solution identifies only the location of the cell tower accessed in the text, not the more accurate Phase 2–type location information.

One of the big concerns many public-safety officials have had about 911 texting is that providing such capability from a large carrier would result in a barrage of texts coming into a PSAP, including a number of fraudulent ones. Soukup said that has not been an issue at all; in fact, there were not any “live” 911 texts transmitted during the first three weeks of operation.

Another issue voiced by call takers during trade shows is that modern-day text messages often are filled with cutesy acronym shortcuts that seem to expand in numbers on a daily basis. With this in mind, Durham’s public-education campaign has requested that emergency texters refrain from using even well-known shortcuts such as LOL, Soukup said.

“One of our FAQs is to educate the public not to do that, because we want the intent of the message to be as clear as possible,” he said. “We ask them not to use … text speak, because we don’t want to misinterpret anything.”

It will be interesting to see if such guidelines are followed in the heat of an emergency, but the fact that texting is an option for Verizon customers in Durham is a credit to the carrier, PSAP and Intrado. And Soukup said it’s just the “first step” in an evolution that is expected to lead to call centers being able to accept — and share to first responders — pictures and videos that could revolutionize public safety’s situational awareness in the future.

“We’re excited to see how this will develop and how it may also provide future enhancements, like maybe video and pictures from cell phones, as well,” he said. “It has to start somewhere.”

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