Residents could soon text 911 during emergencies

January 1, 2013

By Warren Kagarise

Residents could someday text information to 911 call centers in Issaquah and elsewhere in King County, after federal officials proposed rules for major wireless carriers to add the capability.

Stan Conrad

The call center at the Issaquah Police Department, like other call centers countywide, is equipped to receive text-to-911 messages, but wireless carriers lack the capability.

The county is poised to add text-to-911 capability as early as next year, on the heels of federal rules proposed Dec. 17 to require wireless carriers and text messaging applications to deliver 911 text messages.

In the proposed rules from the Federal Communications Commission, officials emphasized for people to make a voice call to 911 whenever possible.

But city and county officials said text-to-911 could provide a lifesaving alternative for a person with a hearing or speech disability, or if audible 911 calls could endanger the caller.

“The biggest advantage is going to be to the hearing- and speech-disabled community, because they will be able to more directly communicate with 911 operators,” Issaquah Police Cmdr. Stan Conrad said.

The text-to-911 capability is more available and less cumbersome than the equipment hearing- and speech-impaired people used to make calls in the past.

AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and a pair of national 911 associations plan to start major deployments of text-to-911 service next year, and nationwide availability is expected by May 2014.

“The infrastructure is in place on our end, but not through the phone companies yet,” Conrad said.

If text-to-911 service is not available in a specific area, major phone carriers agreed to implement automated bounce back error messages by June 30.

Slang-heavy texts could pose challenge

On the Web

Learn more about the Federal Communications Commission’s text-to-911 proposal at www.fcc.gov. Learn more about the King County Enhanced 911 Program at www.kingcounty.gov/911. Residents can create a Smart911 profile and upload information for 911 call-takers and emergency responders at www.smart911.com.

King County is at work on upgrading the countywide Enhanced 911 system to Next Generation 911 technology, and text-to-911 is a major milestone in the transition. The existing Next Generation 911 system allows 911 operators to pinpoint a caller’s general location from a mobile phone.

Conrad said although text-to-911 offers additional lifesaving capability, potential pitfalls exist.

“The thing we’re cautious about is, we don’t want to encourage people to use it to report emergencies if they can speak, but if they can’t speak for some reason, it would be an option for them,” Conrad said. “We would always prefer to talk to a person.”

Moreover, text messaging is occasionally susceptible to delays, operators cannot hear background noise, often a key indicator of trouble on 911 calls and users often rely on abbreviations and slang in text messages.

“People start using these shortcuts and abbreviations, and understanding that and what they mean could be a real problem,” Conrad said.

The text-to-911 innovation comes months after all call centers in 911 rolled out Smart911, a supplemental data service designed to allow residents to create personal safety profiles in a secure database. The information is meant to help crews find callers and assist in emergencies.

Users can create a safety profile online by entering phone numbers and addresses, plus medical, disability or other information to aid emergency personnel.

Then, as a call comes in to a 911 center from a Smart911-registered phone, a caller’s additional data is displayed at the 911 call center. The information is also accessible by medics, firefighters and police officers responding to emergencies.

Rave Mobile Safety — based in Framingham, Mass. — developed Smart911, which is free for county residents; registration is voluntary.

Conrad encouraged residents to sign up for Smart911, especially as people transition from landlines to mobile phones.

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