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
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.

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