FCC Moves to Implement Text-to-911 Nationwide

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-12-13

FCC Moves to Implement Text-to-911 Nationwide

A 13-year-old girl in York County, Va., near Williamsburg, looked out her window and to her horror saw a gang of burglars breaking into her neighbor's house. She did what anyone would do and called 911. But according to a spokesperson for the York County Public Information office, she did more than that. She took photos.

Despite being terrified at the possibility that the burglars would see her, the girl described to 911 operators what she'd seen, but she was too frightened to look outside again, and instead stayed hidden in her own house. But she told the 911 operator that she had the photos. At the time, York County's emergency communications office didn't have the ability to receive SMS or MMS messages, but the quick-thinking operator ran outside, grabbed her own cell phone, and asked the girl to send the photos.

Those photos, and the timely call, made it possible for the York County Sheriff's Office to find the team of burglars and arrest them. All of the people arrested had long felony records and went immediately to jail. This incident along with some others provided the impetus for York County to work with Verizon Wireless to start the ball rolling on a system that would allow people to send text and MMS messages to the emergency services office.

A year later and a couple hundred miles north, and the FCC held hearings on the possibility of speeding up the implementation of Text-to-911. The Commission was bolstered by an agreement among the four national wireless carriers to implement Text-to-911 as quickly as possible, but no later than May 15, 2014. The carriers also agreed to implement a "bounce back" messaging that would inform anyone trying to send a text to the 911 system that the technology hadn't been implemented yet.

While the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would not require Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to implement the ability to receive text messages, it would create incentives to do so. But in this case, some of the implementation is outpacing the incentives. On Dec. 11, York County, Va., put its Text-to-911 system into operation.

Right now, York County's Text-to-911 only works with Verizon Wireless, but other phone companies are expected to sign on soon. "York County expressed an interest in this solution, and we're pleased to work with the team there to provide this service to Verizon Wireless customers in the area," Melanie Ortel, a Verizon Wireless spokesperson, said in an email to eWEEK.

FCC Moves to Implement Text-to-911 Nationwide

"York County's deployment of the technology solution with TCS [TeleCommunication Systems] is the first.  Verizon Wireless also has two other deployments (one in Durham, N.C., and in the state of Vermont) for Text-to-911."

TCS is the company that provides the pathway for text messages to move to the PSAPs. "We connect to SMS message centers to collect the text messages and we connect to location-based service infrastructures to get latitude and longitude for the mobile device, then we compare the location of the text message with jurisdiction boundaries in the U.S. and determine which to send it to," said Thomas Ginter, vice president of product development for TCS.

Ginter said that TCS, which can be either an on-premise or cloud-based solution, then delivers the text message and the location information to the PSAP in a format it can use. “We host the portal environment, allowing the reply to the citizen calling 911 using a multimedia geospatial routing engine," Ginter said. He said that this allows PSAPs to receive picture messages and video when they're ready in addition to text messages.

Hearing witnesses as well as the members of the Commission observed that Text-to-911 is critical for people with hearing and speech problems, people who may need help in medical emergencies where speech is not possible, or for people in significant danger from anything including home invasions to abductions.

The need for what the Commission calls "bounce back" messages is also critical since people have already begun sending text messages to 911, never realizing that their message isn't going through. During the hearings it was revealed that thousands of text messages were sent out to 911 during Hurricane Sandy, and that people had no way to know that their messages were never delivered. Now carriers have already begun to implement an automated response to a 911 text that lets the sender know the feature isn't available yet and to call 911 on the phone.

The fact that all four national wireless carriers have voluntarily agreed to put Text-to-911 into place quickly is a very good start. But dozens of regional carriers still have not signed on. The FCC action will likely help move that along. Fortunately, a lot of momentum exists to make this work. "This is the first time in 40 years that something new has happened in communications for emergency officials," Ginter said. "Without this step, we're still stuck in the dark ages."

Rocket Fuel