By Jill Nolin

Apprehension over a lack of clear standards for text-to-911 service has been mistaken for resistance, several communications professionals said recently.

The comments, shared at a session on next-generation 911 at IWCE 2014, came on the heels of the FCC’s sharp criticism of public-safety answering points (PSAPs). FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in late January that PSAPs need to “get with it” and “step up” efforts to adopt technology needed to accept text-to-911 messages.

“For years—for over 10, 15 years—we’ve been talking about next-gen 911. We were looking for other guidance,” said Tom Gross, director of command center solutions with Motorola Solutions and a former law-enforcement officer with Miami-Dade County who supervised 911 centers. “Well, now the FCC says it’s here. May of 2014, if you request text-to-911, the carriers have to provide it within a six-month window. So for years and years and years, we talked about it. Now it’s here, and they want everyone to move quickly.

“I think what we really need to do is step back and take a look at is how is this going to impact, not only the work flow in your command center, but your community.” 

As with dialing 911 decades ago, the transition to text-to-911 service will require a public-education campaign, Gross said.

Robert LeGrande—former CIO for Washington, D.C., and the moderator for the session—described the changes facing PSAPs, including text-to-911 adoption and the potential role of photos and video, as a tsunami. 

Steve Marzolf, integrated services program director for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, has his concerns. It’s important not to overwhelm a PSAP with data, he said. 

“I think some of the trepidation is warranted,” Marzolf said. “If we focus too much on the technology and not on process, then it will be a tsunami that overwhelms us, and the system will fail.”

He cited the frenetic cell-phone video showing Muammar Gaddafi’s capture and execution as an example of how difficult it can be to interpret what is actually happening in a video. While that may be useful intelligence for a first responder, multimedia can quickly add confusion in a PSAP and distract dispatchers from their primary mission—determining location, what is occurring and who needs to respond. Also, graphic photos and video could add emotional distress at a moment when clarity is needed most. 

“We need to have those processes, those best practices,” Marzolf said. “Just having the information and getting the technology in place without that is going to be a tsunami that overwhelms us.”