With eight of 10 Americans using their cellphones to send or receive text messages, some emergency response centers are updating their technology. Among them are centers in 12 Texas counties, hoping to accommodate situations in which calling 911 may be risky or impossible.
The text-to-911 service is an early step in a national initiative to modernize the emergency call system. The initial deployment in Texas, where the service is available at 27 call centers for Verizon or T-Mobile users, is one of the largest so far in the country.
Text-to-911 technology, which allows a user to send a text to 911, also makes emergency response more accessible to the deaf community. Phone calls remain the priority, officials said, because voice calls have better location-targeting capabilities.
How common text-to-911 will be remains uncertain. The North Central Texas Council of Governments, a regional agency that dispatches emergency calls to police departments and county sheriffs, has introduced the technology at two dozen call centers since January 2013. So far, it has received six emergency text messages on complaints like loud noise, prowlers and disabled vehicles.
The technology has not been widely publicized because it works on only two networks and is not in use statewide. (It is in Vermont and Maine.)
“This is important because most 911 centers are tethered to last century’s voice-centered technology,” said Brian Fontes, chief executive of the National Emergency Number Association, which focuses on 911 policy and technology. “Today we have smartphones, yet 911 centers don’t have the same information-rich capabilities.”
In most of the United States, 70 to 80 percent of 911 calls come from mobile devices, and the percentage is growing, Fontes said. His group has worked with the four largest carriers — Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T — and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials to develop the text-to-911 technology.
While the technology exists on the carriers’ end, it is not mandatory. It is up to local emergency call centers to request the service and allow residents to use it, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
North Texas counties were among the early adopters, partly because the call centers run by the North Central Texas Council of Governments already had an Internet-based calling system that enabled the cost-free installation of text-to-911. Call centers with older equipment would need to spend anywhere from $80,000 to $8 million to enable the service, depending on their size, said Christy Williams, the chief 911 program officer with the council.
LeAnna Russell, the system’s 911 database supervisor, said that while the several 911 texts sent in North Texas so far have not been the most dramatic of circumstances, they have been important. “We’re just glad they’re using the system,” she added.
Williams, who will become the president of the National Emergency Number Association next month, said the long-term goal was to make sure emergency response technology kept up with cellular technology used by consumers.
“We’re ripping out and replacing an infrastructure that’s over 45 years old,” she said. “Once that’s done, we can provide enhanced features for citizens and public safety responders.”
Potential future advances in 911 technology include incorporating video and photo messaging in emergency response systems and allowing different 911 call centers to share maps and databases, which could cut costs and improve efficiency, Fontes said.
“In a next-generation 911 environment,” he said, “when a car crash happens, people could move around, take pictures of the scene and the license plates, and all of this information will be pushed through the responders and hospitals before they even arrive.”
Disclosure: Verizon and AT&T are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.