Why is it so hard to text 911?

Ex­pan­sion of ser­vice slowed by lim­ited funds

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - MONEY - By Mae Anderson Associated Press

NEW YORK — Peo­ple can livestream their ev­ery move on Face­book and chat­ter end­lessly in group chats. But in most parts of the U.S., they still can’t reach 911 by tex­ting — an es­pe­cially im­por­tant ser­vice dur­ing mass shoot­ings and other catas­tro­phes when a phone call could place some­one in dan­ger.

Al­though text-to -911 ser­vice is slowly ex­pand­ing, the em­pha­sis there is on “slow.” Lim­ited funds, piece­meal adop­tion and out­dated call-cen­ter tech­nol­ogy have all helped stymie growth.

Emer­gency 911 cen­ters stress that a phone call is still the best way to reach them, since calls pro­vide them with lo­ca­tion data and other needed de­tails. But in some cases — for in­stance, if a per­son has a hear­ing dis­abil­ity, or when a call might at­tract the at­ten­tion of as­sailants — tex­ting is a far bet­ter way to call for help.

The 911 emer­gency sys­tem was de­vel­oped for land­lines. But now about 80 per­cent of U.S. 911 calls come from cell­phones, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral govern­ment’s Na­tional 911 Pro­gram. There is no le­gal re­quire­ment for call cen­ters to of­fer text-to-911 ser­vices.

If a cen­ter re­quests the ser­vice from mo­bile com­pa­nies like Ver­i­zon or Sprint, how­ever, the com­pa­nies are re­quired to pro­vide it within six months.

More money would speed im­ple­men­ta­tion. “We need a sig­nif­i­cant fed­eral grant pro­gram to mod­ern­ize 911 sys­tems across the coun­try,” said Jeff Co­hen, chief coun­sel at the As­so­ci­a­tion of Pub­lic-Safety Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Of­fi­cials, an ad­vo­cacy group.

Con­gres­sional leg­is­la­tion could speed adop­tion of text-to-911, and while there are two bills cur­rently mak­ing their way through Congress re­lated to the is­sue, they need more bi­par­ti­san sup­port, Co­hen said. Tra­di­tion­ally 911 call cen­ters have been funded by a com­bi­na­tion of state and lo­cal fund­ing, rather than re­ly­ing on fed­eral grants. For that rea­son tech­nol­ogy and adop­tion varies widely be­tween states, cities and coun­ties.

While some ar­eas may have plenty of money to im­ple­ment text-to-911 ser­vice, “oth­ers are cash strapped cities or com­mu­ni­ties that would rather spend money on a po­lice car rather than text-to-911,” said Brian Fontes, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Emer­gency Num­ber As­so­ci­a­tion. “When you don’t have the money you have to pri­or­i­tize what you do with the money you have.”

The first text-to-911 was sent in 2009 in Iowa. Now, ac­cord­ing to data col­lected by the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, more than 1,600 emer­gency call cen­ters across the na­tion have con­fig­ured sys­tems to re­ceive text mes­sage re­quests for 911 ser­vices, up from about 650 two years ago. But that’s barely a quar­ter of the roughly 6,000 over­all in the coun­try. Fig­ures are a bit murky since they are self-re­ported to the FCC.

Im­ple­ment­ing

t ex t- to-911 ser­vice usu­ally starts with a state law re­quir­ing emer­gency cen­ters to sup­port it.

In­di­ana, for ex­am­ple, has state 911 re­quire­ments set by the In­di­ana General As­sem­bly and a state 911 board that over­sees the op­er­a­tion of the statewide 911 net­work, which routes and de­liv­ers 911 voice and text mes­sages from peo­ple to their lo­cal 911 author­ity. It pays for 911 from monthly end user sur­charges, $1 for land­line, wire­less and other types of phones, which are col­lected by phone ser­vice providers.

Four years after In­di­ana dis­patch cen­ters be­gan adopt­ing text-to-911 tech­nol­ogy, res­i­dents in all 92 of the state’s coun­ties can send texts dur­ing emer­gen­cies if they’re un­able to speak to dis­patch­ers, the state said in June. Min­nesota, Con­necti­cut, Maine and Ver­mont also of­fer statewide cov­er­age.

With­out state leg­is­la­tion, adopt­ing text-to-911 can be more piece­meal. In Cal­i­for­nia, a plan to raise taxes to pay for mod­ern­iz­ing the 911 emer­gency dis­patch sys­tem statewide fell one vote short in Septem­ber in the Se­nate when Repub­li­cans re­fused to sign onto a tax in­crease.

But cities and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties can de­cide to sup­port text-to-911 on their own. Los An­ge­les County, which in­cludes cities such as Los An­ge­les, Bur­bank and Glen­dale, has sup­ported text- to-911 since late last year, for ex­am­ple.

Al­legheny County in Penn­syl­va­nia, where the syn­a­gogue shoot­ing took place, does of­fer text-to-911 ser­vice.

But high school stu­dents hid­ing from a gun­man in Park­land, Fla., last Fe­bru­ary, had to make whis­pered 911 calls to au­thor­i­ties. Broward County, which in­cludes Park­land, plans to have textto-911 in place by the end of this year.

“We will never know where the next ac­tive shooter is go­ing to be, whether it’s a ru­ral school, syn­a­gogue, church or any pub­lic place,” said Fontes. “Cer­tainly we want peo­ple to be able to text 911 for safety pur­poses.”

LISA MARIE PANE/AP

The 911 call cen­ter in Roswell, Ga., is ca­pa­ble of ac­cept­ing text mes­sages. A hand­ful of states pro­vide text-to-911 ser­vice, but im­ple­men­ta­tion is slow.

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