FCC Moves to Implement Text-to-911 Nationwide

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Federal Communications Commission is working with carriers, 911 call centers and technology providers to implement the ability to send SMS text messages to 911 and eventually to send photos and videos.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...