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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.

Still, advocates say texting can be invaluable for the hearing impaired or people who cannot or do not want to speak, such as Lisbeth. In some disasters, texting has been the only form of communication available from a cell phone because a text uses wireless frequencies more efficiently than voice — sending out short bits of information in quick bursts. Texts can be useful when wireless voice channels are crowded with callers in emergencies and can be useful when a wireless signal is too weak to support a voice call.

CallFire, a cloud-based voice and text company, originally sponsored the petition and has been frustrated by the slow movement on text-to-911 adoption. The private company has not approached any members of Congress about how possible legislation should proceed, but is hoping to drive public attention to the value of text-to-911.

"Over the past few years, the FCC has strongly pushed for greater availability and is requiring all U.S. wireless carriers to respond to PSAP requests for text-to-911..." said Barbara Palmer, chief revenue officer at CallFire. "While this is encouraging 911 centers to begin accepting text, the FCC cannot issue formal regulations for the [PSAP] space, so counties and states are moving at their own pace."

CallFire offers texting services to businesses and even amber-type alerts to schools and other organizations, but does not provide the text-to-911 technology needed by PSAPs, Palmer said. "We don't have any skin in the text-to-911 game," she said in an interview, but CallFire does hope to raise public awareness.

Palmer said the difficulty with PSAPs getting the new technology seems to be with the cost and not about finding the capable technology. Plus, emergency dispatchers are already overburdened with 911 calls, so training of dispatch personnel is needed, as well as a public education campaign about how to use text-to-911 to provide the appropriate, useful information to dispatchers.

Among the PSAP's already registered as supporting text-to-911 are those within the entire states of Vermont, Indiana and Maine, but other PSAP's in other states have various approaches to adopting and implementing the technology, she said.

Palmer noted that a woman being held hostage in her home in Florida on Monday used the comments section of Pizza Hut app on her smartphone to order a pizza and call for help. Police later arrived to help her, but Palmer argued that text-to-911 would have been more direct.

"We're not advocating text-to-911 as a replacement but in addition to calling 911," she said. "Texting is now ubiquitous and in the fabric of how we communicate."


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