9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Text-to-Voice Calls Coming Soon to Your Comm Center

Article from Public Safety Communications Magazine Jan. 2009
Contributed by the APCO 911/Emerging Technologies Committee

No longer do kids pass notes in class. Now, they send a text message instead of passing a piece of paper--message delivered more easily without paper. Adults of all generations are also getting into the habit of sending text messages, especially with the tool that has become the bane of all of our existence--the cellular telephone.

Text messaging, sending a message from one text-capable phone to another, has quickly become a preferred method of communication in the U.S. Although more prevalent than ever before, this has not been a major concern for public safety agencies across the nation because text-to-911 has not yet been deployed. However, a new format is on the horizon, one that has already seen some use (at least in Arizona) and may quickly spread as others become aware of the capability: short message service (SMS) text-to-voice messaging.

How Does It Work?

Essentially, the user creates and sends a text message as normal. If the receiving end is not text-enabled, a third-party company converts the message to a computerized voice and delivers the message to the indicated destinations. Like most text messages, it may be received within minutes, hours or sometimes days. When you receive the call, you may be unable to follow up with the caller unless you have caller ID or the telephone number of the sender is provided with the message. The message could be from someone reporting a crime in progress, providing information or, at worst, trying to identify an agency's response procedures.


After conducting some research, it was discovered that the largest provider for this service is TeleMessage, based in Acton, Mass. Andy Klassman, director of product management at TeleMessage, was contacted for more information about the company's services.

TeleMessage provides its services to Sprint Nextel, Alltel, Verizon, Virgin Mobile and Qwest. Klassman was "surprised people would use text messaging (to contact 911) anyway." He assured us the company has no plans to allow its services to make calls to 911. People "should be calling, not texting" for assistance. If contacted, TeleMessage will allow an agency to block its number from receiving this type of message from cellular telephones.

TeleMessage does deliver the phone number from the sender along with the message. There is a voice prompt at the end of the call to allow the delivery of a return voice message, or you can select from a series of canned text messages. When tested from a Sprint Nextel phone, this process worked as Klassman described.

Although TeleMessage is the main provider to many different cellular telephone companies, it is not the only service available. Many computer programs also have this same capability. As long as t here is new technology, users will find ways to challenge the public safety communications industry; however, our focus is always to provide services to the best of our abilities.

What Do We Do?

Normally, a calltaker receives a phone call and can query the caller about the situation to determine the appropriate response. This interaction is required for us to correctly ascertain the situation and respond in the most effective manner. However, what do we do when the "caller" is actually a text message that has been converted to a voice message and sent to our nonemergency lines?

The first thing to consider is the potential delay in the message. How long ago was this actually sent? Timing is everything, and we may be sending a response to a location without knowledge of the actual time frame involved.

The next thing to consider is whether any information exists to identify or locate the caller. Obviously, if we are able to obtain the telephone number from the message or via caller ID, we can contact the caller and solicit additional information. However, if the message is anonymous, we won't be able to follow up and will have to advise responding unit(s) accordingly.

Finally, we have to consider what information the caller is providing. The Phoenix Police Department recently received two text-to-voice messages reporting a loud party. Fortunately, this is a rather innocent call and easily dispatched if there is no ability to follow up with the caller. What we need to be concerned about is when the caller is reporting something of a more serious nature, such as a structure fire, shooting, etc. In any case, you should respond according to your agency's policies and procedures based on the incident being reported.

At this time, the Phoenix Police Department is working with Arizona's state legislature to minimize risks associated with the limitations of this technology. Receiving text-to-voice calls may not be the norm in comm centers at this time, but once word gets out to the public at large, stand by for more messages.

No comments:

Post a Comment