Car accidents and fires are obvious situations that may require a call to 911. For the most part, doing so does not increase risk for the caller. However, in cases of domestic abuse or abduction, calling 911 can put the victim in grave danger. In these situations, new technology that allows people to silently text to 911 can be life-saving.
The National 911 Office is driving the planning and adoption of the text-to-911 service to make communicating with emergency services more dynamic. This begins the process of increasing accessibility and a push for public safety answering points (PSAP) to begin Next Generation 911 (NG911) implementation. Text-to-911 is an interim step between current systems used in PSAPs and NG911 implementation. While there is a national push to upgrade, it is a lengthy and expensive process that will initially limit the availability of the service.
  • Many PSAPs have been upgraded to Phase II technology, but there are still several areas of the country with only basic or enhanced 911. Image courtesy of NENA: The 9-1-1 Association.

    Silent texts save lives

    The prevalence of cellular phones is a catalyst for developing text-to-911 technology. According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans currently own a cell phone. Of those cell phone owners, nearly 80 percent use the device for texting. The driving mission of NG911 is to allow telecommunicators to keep up with technology being used by the public.
    It is important to educate the public on how to properly use text-to-911.

    There are several examples of how text-to-911 has already proven crucial for those unable to call 911. In Indiana, a woman was able to text information and receive help while her boyfriend was holding her against her will. She dialed 911 from her cell phone and left the line open as her initial plea for help. Once the man left the room, however, she was able to send and respond to text messages from the telecommunicator to provide more in-depth information for responding emergency personnel.
    In another incident, texts allowed Indiana State Troopers to rescue a woman trapped in a moving car by two men. Held against her will in a vehicle traveling to St. Louis, the woman sent texts that relayed her location until officers were able to pull the vehicle over.
    In both cases, audible communication through a phone call would have alerted the men to the women’s actions and made it more difficult for authorities to intervene with a happy outcome.

    Although text-to-911 is not available in all locations, people still attempt to reach 911 via text message. Prior to implementing text-to-911 in late 2015, for example, a PSAP in Marion County, Indiana, received roughly 400 texts per month to which they could not respond. Even though the Marion County PSAP is now accepting text-to-911, other PSAPs in suburban areas in the county do not yet have the capability to receive texts. Until adoption is complete, people in situations like the ones above will risk escalation trying to get help.
    Four stages of 911 technology create differences in information dispatchers receive
    Text-to-911 is an interim step of the upgrade process to NG911 implementation. There are four different stages of 911 technology currently in use in the United States: basic, enhanced, wireless phases I and II, and Next Generation.
    With basic 911, your call is routed to a corresponding 10-digit phone number in your coverage area. Most of us are familiar with Enhanced 911—dial 911 from a landline to automatically share your telephone number, registered address, and possibly your name on a computer screen in your local PSAP.
    Wireless phases I and II deal with what is transmitted to a PSAP when 911 is contacted from a wireless device. In Phase I, wireless carriers are required to provide PSAPs with the telephone number calling 911 and the cell site transmitting the call, typically a cell tower in the caller’s general vicinity. Wireless Phase II is the requirement for carriers to provide a range area of latitude and longitude for the caller dialing 911.
    Finally, Next Generation 911 is an internet protocol-based system which will allow information to be transmitted to the PSAP from any device. The map included in this article, which was generated by the NENA: The 9-1-1 Association, illustrates the technology being used across the United States as of March, 2014.