A recent FCC filing by the emergency communications director for the city of Durham, N.C., has helped shed additional light on the demand for a text-to-911 service. Durham--which launched an SMS-capable 911 service in August 2011 with Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and Intrado--has received only one SMS to its 911 call center.
"The concern that 9-1-1 texting could overwhelm an emergency communication center is not substantiated," wrote James Soukup, Durham's emergency communications chief, in his FCC filing. "To date we have received only one (1) 9-1-1 text requesting service and it was not an immediate emergency. It is evident that the public will not text 9-1-1 for any occurrence requiring immediate action."
The filing is part of an FCC investigation into the nation's 911 communications system. The agency is considering a proposal that would allow Americans to send text messages to 911 in situations where a voice call would place them in danger, or for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some have argued that adding SMS capabilities to emergency responders could overwhelm the 911 system.
Although Durham's text-to-911 system has only received one SMS so far, the system is not without difficulties.
"Another concern is that someone could deluge the center with false messages or keep sending messages that is incomprehensible," Durham's Soukup wrote. "This occurred one time in Durham where someone sent us numerous text messages that indicated they did not need assistance. We were able to track the address of the person by the telephone number that came with the text messages through coordination with Intrado Inc. and Verizon Wireless. Law enforcement was sent to the address and there were no more issues."
Verizon has long pushed for an FCC ruling that would allow voluntary text-to-911 services. The company in May said it will work with TeleCommunication Systems to offer subscribers the ability to send text messages to 911 dispatchers. And Verizon and Intrado have launched SMS-capable 911 tests in and Vermont.
The topic of sending text messages to 911 has been debated for years. While most industry players agree that the nation's 911 system needs to be upgraded to support texting, picture messaging and other technologies, there is widespread disagreement about exactly how to implement such changes. Some in the industry have called for the FCC to set guidelines governing how wireless carriers send text messages to 911, and how 911 call centers receive those messages. Others, however, have argued against an FCC mandate targeting text-to-911 services, urging the agency to instead overhaul the entire 911 system to support all types of IP communications, from text messaging to video calling. Such an overhaul likely would take years.
Soukup's FCC filing offers a clear look at how text-to-911 services would be used by Americans. He noted that Durham, with a population of around a quarter of a million people, launched its SMS-capable system with Verizon and Intrado in August 2011 and promoted the program through press releases, local media interviews and advertisements at local universities.
"This program is ongoing and the emergency communications center tests the system twice daily to ensure it is working properly," Soukup wrote. "There has been no issue with this technology and we are able to receive the telephone number of the person texting us with the location of the cellular tower it is being received from. Intrado provides a method of documenting every text received with a written time stamped transcript of all the information received and sent."
Interestingly: "We emphasized also that the public should not use traditional 'text-speak' terms and to state exactly what is being requested. Our personnel were not trained in text language and are required to clarify any abbreviations that may be received. This has not been an issue or concern."
- see this FCC filing
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Article modified July 12 to correct Verizon's position on the voluntary nature of text-to911 services.