Text-to-911 technology offers a new way to reach help

Car accidents and fires are obvious situations that may require a call to 911. For the most part, doing so does not increase risk for the caller. However, in cases of domestic abuse or abduction, calling 911 can put the victim in grave danger. In these situations, new technology that allows people to silently text to 911 can be life-saving.

The National 911 Office is driving the planning and adoption of the text-to-911 service to make communicating with emergency services more dynamic. This begins the process of increasing accessibility and a push for public safety answering points (PSAP) to begin Next Generation 911 (NG911) implementation. Text-to-911 is an interim step between current systems used in PSAPs and NG911 implementation. While there is a national push to upgrade, it is a lengthy and expensive process that will initially limit the availability of the service.

Silent texts save lives

The prevalence of cellular phones is a catalyst for developing text-to-911 technology. According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans currently own a cell phone. Of those cell phone owners, nearly 80 percent use the device for texting. The driving mission of NG911 is to allow telecommunicators to keep up with technology being used by the public.

It is important to educate the public on how to properly use text-to-911.


There are several examples of how text-to-911 has already proven crucial for those unable to call 911. In Indiana, a woman was able to text information and receive help while her boyfriend was holding her against her will. She dialed 911 from her cell phone and left the line open as her initial plea for help. Once the man left the room, however, she was able to send and respond to text messages from the telecommunicator to provide more in-depth information for responding emergency personnel.

In another incident, texts allowed Indiana State Troopers to rescue a woman trapped in a moving car by two men. Held against her will in a vehicle traveling to St. Louis, the woman sent texts that relayed her location until officers were able to pull the vehicle over.

In both cases, audible communication through a phone call would have alerted the men to the women’s actions and made it more difficult for authorities to intervene with a happy outcome.

Although text-to-911 is not available in all locations, people still attempt to reach 911 via text message. Prior to implementing text-to-911 in late 2015, for example, a PSAP in Marion County, Indiana, received roughly 400 texts per month to which they could not respond. Even though the Marion County PSAP is now accepting text-to-911, other PSAPs in suburban areas in the county do not yet have the capability to receive texts. Until adoption is complete, people in situations like the ones above will risk escalation trying to get help.

Four stages of 911 technology create differences in information dispatchers receive

Text-to-911 is an interim step of the upgrade process to NG911 implementation. There are four different stages of 911 technology currently in use in the United States: basic, enhanced, wireless phases I and II, and Next Generation.

With basic 911, your call is routed to a corresponding 10-digit phone number in your coverage area. Most of us are familiar with Enhanced 911—dial 911 from a landline to automatically share your telephone number, registered address, and possibly your name on a computer screen in your local PSAP.

Wireless phases I and II deal with what is transmitted to a PSAP when 911 is contacted from a wireless device. In Phase I, wireless carriers are required to provide PSAPs with the telephone number calling 911 and the cell site transmitting the call, typically a cell tower in the caller’s general vicinity. Wireless Phase II is the requirement for carriers to provide a range area of latitude and longitude for the caller dialing 911.

Finally, Next Generation 911 is an internet protocol-based system which will allow information to be transmitted to the PSAP from any device. The map included in this article, which was generated by the NENA: The 9-1-1 Association, illustrates the technology being used across the United States as of March, 2014.

FCC suggests three ways for PSAPs to become text-to-911 capable

While new regulations have brought about change in how information is delivered to the PSAP, they also require PSAPs to upgrade their often dated equipment. In a time when finances are tight and budgets are being cut, these upgrades are not always an option for PSAPs, especially the small rural agencies dotting the country.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has offered three implementation options as a means of supporting the text-to-911 service with existing equipment.

The first option uses existing TDD/TTY equipment with an interface that allows communication via text message. Telecommunicators already use similar technology to allow them to communicate with the hearing or speech impaired residents in the community. Because this equipment is already a requirement for PSAPs, it does not necessitate any new equipment or services.

Alternately, text-to-911 messages can be sent to a computer via a portal operated by a third party. The portal can be made available on current workstations equipped with a computer and an internet connection. One such portal is INdigital’s TexTTY application, which leverages the existing wireless phase II platform, transmitting the same caller information as a phase II wireless 911 call.

In addition to receiving inbound texts with TexTTY, telecommunicators can send response texts. In a phone conversation, Ty Wooten, Education Director for the National Emergency Numbers Association (NENA), described how this technology aids in the resolution of all-too-common pocket dial 911 calls. With TexTTY, telecommunicators can text hang-up and pocket dial numbers to ensure there is not a need for emergency services, thus keeping resources from being sent unnecessarily and freeing up manpower for actual emergencies.

These portals are a cost-saving means of access; however, they are often separate from other logging systems and workflow areas, and this could result in missed texts. Another challenge is that they are dependent on an internet connection. Therefore, if connectivity is lost, so is the ability to receive incoming text-to-911 messages.

The final option for PSAPs is to upgrade to the Next Generation 911 interface. Wooten discussed how an upgraded NG911 interface provides the architecture for PSAPs to keep up with all future technological advances, whereas current 911 systems are based on technology from decades ago and do not allow for efficient upgrade.

Though not always financially feasible for small PSAPs, Wooten described how the upgrades are meant to be implemented on a statewide or even regional scale. With the added communication benefits between PSAPs that accompany the NG911 upgrade, it is much more beneficial for a large area to be equipped. This large-scale implementation also increases the ability to plan and prepare for large scale events.

Educating the public on text-to-911 is critical

Because information received by the PSAP from a text may be limited, and because there are certain restrictions on how text messages can be sent to 911, it is critical to inform the general public about how to best use this new technology.

Starting in 2014, the FCC required that mobile carriers provide their customers with the ability to send SMS messages to 911. An SMS, or short message service, is limited to 160 characters. Should the emergency message exceed those limits, however, it is typically converted to a multimedia message service, or MMS, which is not an accepted format for texting to 911. If a person attempts to send anything other than an SMS to 911, they will receive a “bounce-back” message advising them they need to contact emergency services via a different method. The same message is also sent when the user attempts to send a text to a 911 PSAP not equipped to receive texts.

You should always make voice calls to 911 whenever possible. If you will be in further danger by making noise, however, texting is a viable option for contacting emergency services. When sending the texts, you should lead with the address where emergency services are needed. Even if the telecommunicators are unable to get any further information, with the address, they can dispatch personnel to the area.

Text-to-911 services are not available from deactivated cell phones. However, if your cell phone has been disconnected you can still dial 911 and speak with a telecommunicator. Keep in mind, the phone will probably not transmit any location information.

With roughly 70 percent of the estimated 240 million 911 calls being made from cell phones, it is easy to see how widespread mobile use has become. Unfortunately, there is still quite a disconnect between location services and PSAPS. You should always attempt to make voice calls to 911 whenever possible, as they are the most efficient and accurate means of communication. That being said, if for some reason you are unable to speak, some now have the option of text-to-911 .

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Posted on Dec 8, 2015