The Real Reason You Can’t Text 911

Major cell-phones companies are equipped to let callers text emergency call centers, but most states aren’t.

The light on the roof of a police car is pictured on September 30, 2010 in Berlin.
National Journal
Laura Ryan and Brian Mcgill
See more stories about...
Laura Ryan Brian McGill
Aug. 8, 2014, 7:44 a.m.

Ima­gine there is an in­truder in your home. You are hid­ing un­der the bed. You have your cell phone. Di­al­ing 911 might give away your hid­ing place, so you de­cide to send a text mes­sage.

You bet­ter hope you live in Ver­mont, Maine, or one among the hand­ful of counties scattered across the coun­try that are pre­pared to ac­cept text mes­sages dur­ing an emer­gency. Any­where else, your text is go­ing nowhere.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion voted Fri­day to re­quire all mo­bile car­ri­ers and in­ter­con­nec­ted text pro­viders — apps such as Apple’s iMes­sage that can send mes­sages to phone num­bers out­side of the app — to let cus­tom­ers’ text 911 by the end of the year. The big-four car­ri­ers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mo­bile, and Ve­r­i­zon — vol­un­tar­ily en­abled text-to-911 cap­ab­il­it­ies in May.

But the FCC rul­ing is only a small step to­ward cre­at­ing a wide­spread text-to-911 sys­tem.

For the sys­tem to work, 911 call cen­ters have to be equipped to re­ceive text mes­sages. And right now, that’s a rar­ity: About 2 per­cent of emer­gency call cen­ters around the coun­try are pre­pared to handle text mes­sages, and the FCC does not have au­thor­ity to re­quire that cap­ab­il­ity.

In­stead, the de­cision to re­quire or not re­quire call cen­ters to be text-com­pat­ible be­longs with in­di­vidu­al states and counties.

Ver­mont be­came the first state to ad­opt text-to-911 statewide this year after an early tri­al with Ve­r­i­zon in 2012 dis­pelled “urb­an le­gends” that a flood of text mes­sages would res­ult.

Dav­id Tuck­er, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the state’s En­hanced 911 Board, said that of the 208,000 emer­gency calls in 2013, about 150 were text mes­sages. Of those mes­sages, around 10 have helped vic­tims of do­mest­ic ab­use.

Ver­mont’s de­cision to make the switch was easy be­cause the state’s pub­lic-safety sys­tem is cent­ral­ized. But pub­lic safety ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cisions in most oth­er states are made at the city or county level, mean­ing it re­quires a lot more co­ordin­a­tion and money to be­come text-ready.

The FCC sees the trans­ition to text-to-911 as a chick­en-and-egg prob­lem, but hopes its man­date for text pro­viders to send mes­sages to 911 will ex­ped­ite the ad­op­tion of the tech­no­logy in emer­gency call cen­ters around the coun­try.

More than 90 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans have mo­bile phones, and an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of those use text mes­saging, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search. Al­though voice calls to 911 are prefer­able be­cause they are more re­li­able and the loc­a­tion track­ing is more pre­cise, text-to-911 could be a lifesaver for people with speech or hear­ing dis­ab­il­it­ies or in in­stances like do­mest­ic ab­use or home in­tru­sion when pla­cing a phone call could put the vic­tim at risk.

But some crit­ics worry that the FCC’s rules will con­fuse the pub­lic pre­cisely be­cause of the gulf between cell phones’ cap­ab­il­it­ies and the real­ity of emer­gency call cen­ters. Re­pub­lic­an Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai voted against it be­cause, he says, “it en­cour­ages the pub­lic to dive in­to text-to-911 func­tion­al­ity when in real­ity there’s hardly any wa­ter in the pool.”

To mit­ig­ate this safety haz­ard, mo­bile car­ri­ers are re­quired to send bounce-back mes­sages to cus­tom­ers who at­tempt to text 911 in an area that is not cap­able of re­ceiv­ing them. The FCC, states, and loc­al of­fi­cials are also quick to em­phas­ize that call­ing 911 is al­ways the best way to get help dur­ing an emer­gency be­cause the tech­no­logy can track your pre­cise loc­a­tion.

Re­pub­lic­ans and some mo­bile car­ri­ers are wor­ried, iron­ic­ally, that the SMS-fo­cused man­date will dis­tract re­sources from de­ploy­ing what is known as Next Gen­er­a­tion 911 — a na­tion­wide ini­ti­at­ive to trans­ition all pub­lic-safety cen­ters to In­ter­net-based tech­no­logy. In a world of Nex­t­Gen 911, IP tech­no­lo­gies people will be able to send voice calls, text mes­sages, and mul­ti­me­dia with sig­ni­fic­antly im­proved loc­a­tion track­ing.

MOST READ
What We're Following See More »
SHE’LL HAVE A ROLE WITH CLINTON CAMP
Wasserman Schultz to Resign at Week’s End
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

"After hours of private talks," Debbie Wasserman Schultz agreed to step down as chair of the Democratic National Committee after the convention ends. In the wake of the convention intrigue, Hillary Clinton announced she's making Wasserman Schultz "the honorary chair of her campaign's 50-state program."

Source:
MARCIA FUDGE TO PRESIDE
Wasserman Schultz Stripped of Convention Duties
15 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz "will not have a major speaking role or preside over daily convention proceedings this week," and is under increasing pressure to resign. The DNC Rules Committee on Saturday named Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge as "permanent chair of the convention." At issue: internal DNC emails leaked by Wikileaks that show how "the DNC favored Clinton during the primary and tried to take down Bernie Sanders by questioning his religion."

Source:
EARLY BUMP FOR TRUMP?
New Round of Polls Show a Tight Race
2 days ago
THE LATEST
  • A Rasmussen Reports poll shows Donald Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton, 43%-42%, the fourth week in a row he's led the poll (one of the few poll in which he's led consistently of late).
  • A Reuters/Ipsos survey shows Clinton leading 40%-36%. In a four-way race, she maintains her four-point lead, 39%-35%, with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein pulling 7% and 3%, respectively.
  • And the LA Times/USC daily tracking poll shows a dead heat, with Trump ahead by about half a percentage point.
BELLWETHER?
Candidates Deadlocked in Ohio
3 days ago
THE LATEST
17-POINT EDGE AMONG MILLENNIALS
Clinton Dominates Among Younger Voters
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

In an election between two candidates around 70 years of age, millennials strongly prefer one over the other. Hillary Clinton has a 47%-30% edge among votes 18 to 29. She also leads 46%-36% among voters aged 30 to 44.

Source:
×