Oct 15th 2014 | Posted in Public Safety, Technology by Mary Scott Nabers

Texting has become so common that people no longer think about not having cellular communication. Texting is almost always possible – except when it isn’t. Throughout most of the United States, it’s not possible to text 9-1-1 in an emergency. Cellular coverage for emergency calls to 9-1-1 is not yet available in most places.

Black Hawk County, Iowa, was one of the first to pilot emergency cellular technology in 2009. Since then, about 40 counties and a few states, including Maine and Vermont, have implemented similar systems. Other states, including California, Massachusetts, Kansas, South Dakota, New Mexico, Tennessee and Oregon, are in the process of implementing emergency cellular systems.

The Association of Public-Safety Communications (APCO) has aggressively pushed the concept of cellular systems throughout the United States.

There are all kinds of benefits for textable 9-1-1 systems. They allow people who are deaf or hearing-impaired to call for assistance, and texting allows victims of any type of violence to reach out for help without alerting their offenders.

With textable 9-1-1, there is less interaction between a dispatcher and the person needing assistance, so it is imperative to relay as much information as clearly as possible. Next Generation 9-1-1 is an initiative to bridge the gap between emergency calls and emergency texts.

The implementation of Next Generation 9-1-1, however, has been slow. Earlier this year, the four major cellular providers in the United States committed to make the technology available in areas where call centers are equipped to handle it. Two months later, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to require all cell communications providers to support texts to 9-1-1 by year’s end.

With the requirement in place, municipalities, counties and other emergency communications centers began considering ways to update call centers for text messages. The work is not difficult, but the cost is extremely high. Estimates by the FCC price nationwide implementation at about $3 billion. That kind of funding is simply not available. So, to help ease the financial burden, President Obama signed the Next Generation 9-1-1 Advancement Act of 2012 – which offers $115 million in grant assistance to public entities. In spite of that, as of August, only about 2 percent of call centers were equipped for texting capability.

In Harris County, it will soon be possible for some residents to text 9-1-1 when they need help. The county’s 9-1-1 call center (Greater Harris County 9-1-1 Emergency Network) serves both Harris and Fort Bend counties, and the 50 cities (including Houston) within them. That is a big step forward for parts of Texas.

Hamilton County, Ohio, has a population of about 800,000. It was one of the first to pilot textable 9-1-1 capabilities. The county normally handles more than 600,000 emergency calls each year and officials were concerned that the option of textable 9-1-1 would overwhelm them. Fortunately, that did not happen. In fact, things seem to be working exceptionally well.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill allowing for emergency text messages to reach 9-1-1 centers. Implementation will begin in 2015. At least 450 call centers in California must be updated before the project is completed.

Vermont was the first state in the country to invest $2 million dollars in an emergency texting system. That allowed the state to get through phase one of implementation, but dispatchers credit the system with saving lives they believe would have been lost otherwise.

Cellular coverage for emergency messaging will not be universal for a long time, but that capability is emerging. Until then, the old fashioned phone and a voice message will be required.


Mary Scott Nabers

As President and CEO of Strategic Partnerships, Inc., Mary Scott Nabers has decades of experience working in the public-private sector. A well-recognized expert in the P3 and government contracting fields, she is often asked to share her industry insights with top publications and through professional speaking engagements.