PSAPs find text-to-911 transition relatively straightforward
Adding text-to-911 functionality to public-safety answering points (PSAPs) has proven helpful without being particularly difficult or burdensome, according to officials for two 911 centers that have been receiving emergency text communications via solutions provided by Intrado.
In the state of Vermont, where Verizon and Sprint customers are able to send texts directly into the statewide IP-based 911 system, the capability has made a difference on at least two occasions, according to David Tucker, executive director of the Vermont Enhanced 911 Board that oversees functionality for the state’s eight PSAPs.
In one instance, a person texted an intent to commit suicide, and police were able to get to the site quickly enough to revive the person after an attempted hanging, Tucker said. In another situation, a woman texted 911 to let authorities know that she was being abused by her husband.
“When people talk about text-to-911 services, a lot of the discussion is about providing services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, but the unfortunate segment of the population that lives in a domestic-violence situation can also benefit,” Tucker said.
“That’s exactly what that segment of the population needs — a safe way to reach somebody in an emergency. If she had picked the phone and started talking on the phone to somebody, her husband probably would have known it.”
Tucker said he looks forward to the day when all four nationwide wireless carriers support text to 911, which will make public-education effort much more straightforward.
“It’s difficult to educate the public,” Tucker said. We have a little bit of a concern about making a big push to educate the public and have them be confused at the time that they are in an emergency and could use the service, but they’ve forgotten that they have an AT&T or T-Mobile phone [from a carrier that does not support text to 911 in Vermont at the moment].
“We need to have more ubiquitous coverage in Vermont to really have it be effective. But, if we can get T-Mobile and AT&T on board, we’ll essentially have about 98% of the wireless market in Vermont covered.”
One much-discussed concern regarding text to 911 has been the potential for call-takers to be inundated with traffic from emergency texts that could become overwhelming. However, adding the text-to-911 capability has not been an unusual burden for call-takers, Tucker said.
“We’ve absolutely not been overwhelmed with them,” he said. “There are days — sometimes several days in a row — where they don’t get any [text] traffic. I think the fallacy in people being overwhelmed is that … the reality is that it’s still easier — if you can make a voice call — to make a voice call. It’s faster, and it’s more efficient. Texting is what it is, but it’s not the fastest, most efficient way to communicate.
“We’re trying to be prepared for the day when it’s more ubiquitous and we’ve done the public education and are generating more traffic. We just don’t think it’s going to become the burden that some people fear it is.”
This sentiment is echoed by James Soukup, director of the Durham (N.C.) Emergency Communications Center, who said his PSAP has only received a handful of emergency texts in the two years it has been able to receive them.
“It’s a nice thing to have for those rare occurrences, but it’s not something that’s used very often.” Soukup said.
In preparing the Durham PSAP for next-generation 911, much of the attention from outside was on the ability for the center to accept text and—hopefully within the year—photos and video, Soukup said. However, there are many other benefits to the IP-based platform, he said.
Today, the voice quality on emergency calls is “crystal clear,” and maintenance costs are expected to decrease about $200,000 annually, largely because work involving software upgrades can be executed remotely, instead of requiring technical assistance on site, Soukup said.
“That saves them [Intrado] some money and saves us money, for sure,” he said