Public safety experts debate next-gen 911 in wake of Oklahoma tornado devastation

LAS VEGAS--Just 24 hours after a tornado wreaked havoc on a suburb of Oklahoma City, public safety experts on a panel at the CTIA Wireless 2013 conference here talked about next-generation 911, the future of text-to-911 and other major public safety wireless issues.

The panelists noted that unlike other weather disasters such as hurricanes, tornados develop very quickly leaving operators with little time to prepare.  "Tornados can visibly rip infrastructure from the ground," said Charles McKee, vice president of government affairs at Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S).  McKee said that despite the suddenness of tornados, the company does have response initiatives in place such as deploying mobile generators for backup power and setting up cell sites on wheels (COWs) that can fill in dead zones.

Nevertheless, panelists admitted that these types of situations can be particularly challenging. CTIA noted that on Monday, Oklahoma issued 30 emergency alerts to notify people that tornado conditions existed.  According to Holly Henderson, external affairs manager at SouthernLinc,  the emergency alerts are mandated by the government, making it difficult for carriers to control, and sometimes these alerts annoy customers. She suggested that the industry perhaps develop an app that would not only provide better information in the event of a disaster but could complement emergency alerts without inundating users.

Jeff Cohen, chief counsel, law and policy, director of government relations at the  Association of Public Safety Officials (APCO)  said that these  apps already exist, noting that the American Red Cross offers an app that helps provide information to users. However, he said that these apps are opt-in and emergency alerts are opt-out. Nevertheless, Cohen noted that next-gen 911 could compliment emergency alerts and that the messages to subscribers could be coordinated.

When it comes to texting to 911, APCO's Cohen said that there are issues with text-to-911. For example, call takers have to understand text abbreviations,  they also have to get accustomed to receiving more than one text at a time. And he noted that unlike phone calls to 911, call takers can't hear background noise, which can often provide helpful clues as the situation of the caller.

Sprint's McKee said that text-to-911, while valuable, should be clearly communicated to end users as a backup option, with voice calling being the preferred method. "We emphasize that everyone understand that text-to-911 is a best effort service," he said. "It is not a guaranteed process. It is not designed to do 911. It's never going to have the same level of communication."

Last December, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) all agreed to offer nationwide text-to-911 services by May 15, 2014, with "major deployments" starting next year.

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