9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

911 Call Centers Consider Impact of FCC Texting Proposal

Taken from www.emergencymgmt.com, February 12, 2014
Written by Brian Heaton

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a rule last month that requires wireless carriers to support text-to-911 functionality by the end of 2014.  Experts support the idea, but are concerned about the impact it may have on the public, particularly in areas where 911 call centers don't have next-generation technology online to accept emergency texts.

Some public safety access points (PSAPs) are upgrading their equipment or reaching partnerships with other area call centers that have next-gen 911 to cover their jurisdictions.  But there are others that haven't, which increases the risk of people texting for help and not receiving an answer.

Terry Hall, chief of emergency communications for the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Call Center in Virginia, said more than 30,000 text-to-911 messages went "in the bit bucket" during 2013 -- going completely unanswered.  And with an increasing percentage of 911 calls coming from mobile devices, that number may rise in the future.

Hall and Al Fjerstad, PSAP manager with the Mille Lacs County Sheriff's Office in Milaca, Minn., believe one of the solutions is a "bounce-back" message.

When a person sends a text to 911 and service isn't availabe, the person would receive a message back letting them know the system isn't text-ready and to call 911.  The major wireless carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- voluntarily agreed to provide text-to-911 and the bounce-back message feature by May 15 this year.  The capability is currently deployed sporadically in the U.S., including dozens of cities and a handful of entire states, including Maine and Vermont.

But while the big carriers make up a good chunk of the text messaging provider market, all carriers need to agree to the bounce-back feature for the idea to work.  Even if the service isn't available, a person needs to know they've been heard.

"We all know with text messaging..even though you get that little message that says 'delivered,' that person may never get it," Fjerstad said.  "So therein lies the whole thing.  And I think that's one of my primary concerns and one of the questions that I keep asking that hasn't been answered yet."

The York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Call Center was one of the first in the U.S. to accept text messages to 911.  The service went live about 10 months ago.  Hall said that while 75 percent of the calls to the center come from a cell phone, the texting capability is thought of as a secondary way to contact 911.  He called it a tool to augment voice calls to 911 for those who can't speak or are in danger if they are heard.

Fjerstad felt it was too early for texting to become a primary way to contact 911 and believes there are a variety of operational questions that need to be addressed.  He explained that a person's voice can provide details words can't.  Peoples' texts can also categorize events differently than law enforcement, adding to confusion.

For example, someone texting that a robbery just occurred may actually be a simple theft, or a domestic dispute could be a verbal confrontation rather than a physical act.

"We can keep a person on the line in a domestic situation or something like that and hear things in the background -- with text messaging you don't get that," Fjerstad said.  "Much is lost in the written word.  You don't have voice inflection, background noise or any of that."

While the FCC's proposal presents challenges, the bottom line for Hall and Fjerstad was that the changes in store for PSAPs will ultimately lead to better-informed responders and a safer public.

"Text-to-911 is an evolutionary process," Hall said.  "It's the beginning of being able to send digital data to the 911 center in the future.  It'll be pictures, graphics and video and so-on."

HG commented:  This is a great idea, but wonder if the texting app that some people have will cause issues.  There is also the sporadic texting that some phones do.  I have sent a text and the person did not receive it until almost 12 hours later.  I understand the need for the "bounce-back" and it does pertain to what I am talking about.  The issue I can see happening is the "bounce-back" message being delayed as some texts are.  All-in-all this is a great idea and hope that it will work as intended.

FB commented:  Text messaging is a service the wireless providers allow us to use for a fee.  It is actually a "keep alive" or network diagnostic tool that the wireless providers used to check the status of cell sites.  When they found they could market it and enhance the bottom line we have text messaging.  If it is a diagnostic tool and then the opportunity for delay and failures remains a gap.  The bounce back message is fine if there is no connectivity but if you are injured and the message is not received for an hour much less the three to four we routinely see especially with secondary providers could present grave consequences.  This past weekend (2/15/14) I picked up an item for my wife and sent her a picture message that I had the item in hand and was on my way home.  I drove 45 minutes arrived home gave her the item and then she received the text that I was on my way.  Had this been a life or death message I would have died due to the lack of oxygen from a heart attack or bled out from an accidental injury.  Text messaging is being relied on to pass critical information.  911 operators while receiving information from the caller are also gathering and assimulating other information that is passed on to responders, i.e. gunshots, explosions, threats, caller's tone and demeanor all of which play in the response.

LW commented:  Good concept.  People are going to try this whether or not the systems support it.  I agree with all that was said about the advantages of a voice call.  In a duress situation text may be the safest for the victim.  Hope to see more on this in the future editions.

Glen Mills commented:  Has anyone considered the issue of "Swatting" where phone numbers are spoofed in order to generate an emergency response to an address where no emergency exists.  This will be even easier to do and harder to detect via text.  What about Denial of Service (DOS) attacks?  These attacks that flood phone or data systems can occur on 911 voice lines but again, it is something easy to do with computer technology via text.  The text messages could report a wide array of emergencies at a wide array of locations and easily get to the point where valid 911 calls and texts can't be answered for a very long time period.  All of these problems need to be addressed and planned for before we deploy this technology.

Unknown commented:  The problem of unreceived texts is one I would particularly worry about.  While texts are often reliable, about 10% of all texts never reach their destinations.  If I were designing such a system, I'd include an auto-reply to the sender to indicate the text has been received.  If you don't get it, either it wasn't received or the auto-reply didn't get back to you.  Worse comes to worst, the sender re-sends the original text.  Texts have the advantage of being silent.  If I'm hiding from an active shooter, a home invasion, or a rampaging spouse, I don't want to have to speak aloud to call for help.  While texts have severe limitations, they also have a better chance of getting through in a crisis when phone lines are overloaded, which is another advantage.  I'm not sure what FB's objection is; the more ways people have to call for help, the better off we all are.  Yes, it is imperfect, and there will be failures, but let's not dismiss the idea because it's not perfect.  "The perfect is the enemy of the good," as the saying goes.  Glen's objection is well-founded, and I'd worry about that too.  Not sure what the best solution would be; probably responders would have to treat every message as genuine, while texting back and asking for confirmation.

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