Return to Sender: Why 911 and Texting Dont Mix

There’s been a lot of talk lately about states “raiding” their 911 funds to shore up ailing budgets or pay for other programs, all at the expense of upgrading 911 systems to accept next-gen communications such as text messaging. The matter came to a head this summer when the public safety answering point (PSAP) in Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first in the nation to field text messages. Why, observers then wondered, isn’t every emergency call center up to snuff? Then, rather than examining the facets of such an overhaul, they blamed states and their allocation decisions.

It’s true: Without the dollars, improvements won’t happen. However, experts say there’s more to e911 initiatives than money, and those details have been overlooked.

Pinpointing emergency cell phone calls remains an imperfect art. So when people talk about adding text-messaging functionality to PSAPs, they’ve just upped the ante with nothing to back it.

“There is no infrastructure in place, nor are there any standards, that would enable the location of the caller to be automatically made available,” said Mark Fetherolf, CTO of InterAct Public Safety Systems, which provisions emergency calling equipment and software for PSAPs.

Furthermore, consider how many years passed before service providers implemented 911 location technology for wireless calls – and some would argue that matter still is not fully addressed.

“It took regulation” to motivate network operators, Fetherolf explained. “And even with regulations in place there were delays and a certain amount of foot-dragging on the part of carriers and the expected battles over standards. It’s going to be a while before it gets resolved for texting.”

Even in the much-vaunted Black Hawk County PSAP, “you pretty much just have to tell the operator your location,” Fetherolf said.

“A 911 text message is going to have to be routed almost instantaneously,” said James Brehm, senior consultant in Frost & Sullivan’s communication technology practice.

And therein lies a red flag. Text messages often do get hung up among networks, depending on bandwidth capacity and service availability. Voice calls connect right away and the same must be ensured for text messages going to emergency call centers.

Fetherolf said there are ways to mitigate text-messaging delays. For example, most delayed text messages remain in limbo because the receiving party is not online, he said. PSAPs, on the other hand, “would be online all the time.”

Plus, “it is certainly possible for the carriers to give some level of priority technologically to emergency messages.”

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