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Text-to-911: Only 5% of emergency dispatch centers support it

Matt Hamblen | May 8, 2015
Just 5% of the nation's 6,500 emergency dispatch centers are equipped to receive and respond to emergency text-to-911 messages.

Just 5% of the nation's 6,500 emergency dispatch centers are equipped to receive and respond to emergency text-to-911 messages.

That's not good enough for more than 41,000 signers of a petition. They want Congress to pass legislation requiring emergency centers to update their systems to accommodate texting.

Text-to-911 would have provided much-needed help for Lisbeth (not her real name), a mother of two who said she was repeatedly battered by her boyfriend in her home over several years. One day three years ago, when he was yelling at her, she tried to call 911 on her cell phone for help, but he broke down the door where she was hiding and demanded to know whom she was calling.

"I was trying to whisper, but he got in and punched me and asked me who I was talking to," Lisbeth said in an interview. That time, a neighbor overheard the fight and called 911 to bring police to the scene.

"911 works, but I wish it worked with text," she added. "If they had it back then, it might have made a difference." Lisbeth later moved into a shelter for abused women in California's San Fernando Valley and said her life has improved for herself and her children. "Anybody who is going through the same situation as I was should ask for help," she said.

The Federal Communications Commission last year required U.S. carriers and makers of some texting apps to provide emergency texting with their services, but the FCC doesn't regulate the nation's emergency dispatch centers. Instead, the centers are regulated locally by 3,200 different states, counties and cities, even though many of those jurisdictions receive federal funds for the dispatch centers.

Text-to-911 is supported by the nation's largest wireless carriers, which must begin routing 911 text messages to a dispatch center that requests the capability by June 30, or six months after a request is made, according to the FCC website. A downloadable spreadsheet on the site lists just 296 dispatch centers (officially known as Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs) as ready for text-to-911 out of an estimated 6,500 PSAPs nationwide, or about 4.5%.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai last August expressed concerns that FCC mandates for carriers might give the public a false impression that they can send texts to emergency responders when so few are prepared to receive texts.

The FCC last year also encouraged the public to call 911 rather than text, if possible. Some police and other first responders have said that a voice call in an emergency can provide important information that can be harder to impart with a text.


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