By John Rennie
A speedy 911 response is the difference between life and death in many emergencies. On Aug. 8, the FCC voted to ensure citizens have even more options for contacting 911 by mandating that all wireless carriers and some message services support Text to 911 by the end of the year.
This not only provides another option for the public to contact the authorities in an emergency when it’s not possible or safe to call, but also supports those more reliant on texting, including the 48 million Americans who are deaf or hearing impaired and the 7.5 million with speech disabilities.
This ruling was overdue, as the emergency response landscape is a confusing patchwork of support for texting 911. But the specific rules don’t apply to all messaging apps, and the adoption and implementation of the new requirements have the potential to stir further confusion, as there’s still a lot of work to do to make Text to 911 a true emergency touch point.
The use of texting and messaging apps is exploding while few public safety answering points (PSAPs) can receive and respond to these messages.
Expanding the use of text to 911
The four major carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint — committed to making 911 texting possible back in 2012 and delivered on that promise in May. Yet the PSAP infrastructure needed to receive and respond to those texts is lagging far behind.
Of the nearly 6,000 primary and secondary PSAPs in the U.S., only 121 currently accept text messages — just 2 percent. The risks are too high that someone will send a message that never makes it to the proper authorities.
Worse, the existing infrastructure relies solely on SMS texts, which are rapidly being eclipsed by messaging apps, from WhatsApp to iMessage to Skype. Two years ago, users sent 17.6 billion SMS messages and 19 billion messages through chat apps. The number of texts sent through messaging apps was expected to reach 50 billion this year, compared to just 21 billion for SMS texts.
These messaging apps all operate over the top (OTT), often using IP to transmit information instead of SMS like traditional text messages. There are even smartphone apps that enable a person to press a panic button and share multimedia information with emergency services, also without using SMS.
Considering the abundance of different messaging apps and the behavior and expectations of the public, the PSAPs must be prepared to deal with both SMS and OTT communications.
The future of PSAPs and messaging services
The rules approved on Friday would require all wireless carriers and many messaging apps to support Text to 911. While the ruling excluded certain messaging apps, like WhatsApp, the FCC did propose expanding the rule to additional services and requiring the inclusion of location data with the messages.
This also is a step in the right direction for Next Generation 911, a concept that could expand the range of content and delivery of information to 911 call centers.
The real challenge now will be updating the technology at the PSAPs to support these messages. Some fear this ruling will delay other needed upgrades to existing 911 call centers.
This vote was focused on practical usage and is an important step toward consistency and logical functionality, giving citizens every option to message 911 however they are comfortable. This is necessary so that service is available to the entire public, not only those who subscribe to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint.
But PSAPs across the nation will have to enhance their current technology and operational procedures to ensure that every emergency contact is answered as quickly as possible.
About the author
John Rennie, the general manager of the Public Safety Global Business Unit of NICE Systems, has overseen audio and video projects for public safety agencies serving some of the world’s largest cities as well as notable federal agencies such as the FAA. Prior to assuming his current position, John was vice president of NICE Systems’ Public Safety Research and Development team in the UK.