Texters hitting 'send' for help

In a mere five months, an estimated 65,000 text messages were sent to 911...very few were delivered. On December 12, 2012, the FCC issued a Text-to-911 Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making. This action was a clarion call for the wireless carriers, and the top four carriers, supporting almost 90 percent of all wireless subscribers in the U.S., have indicated their plans to support Text-to-911 before the close of 2014.

But why has it taken us this long to support an interface that was used over two trillion times in 2012 to send messages to friends, family, coworkers and even favorite TV shows? Looking at the 35 years it has taken to receive 911 voice calls might give us a clue.

The challenge of getting voice calls

In February 1967, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the institution of a single number to be used to reach police departments, and word that this same number should be instituted nationwide. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took on the responsibility to determine what this number should be; and in December 1967, AT&T (then responsible for the nationwide numbering plan) selected “911.” The first 911 system was implemented in February 1968 in Haleyville, Ala., as a way to quickly connect citizens with local police. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that the FCC recommended the use of 911 nationwide. Starting with New York City in 1973, this single emergency number began to be used to access fire and emergency medical services as well.

In 1978, the first Enhanced 911 (E911) system went live in Alameda County, Calif. With E911, the phone number of the caller was delivered with the call so it could be selectively routed to the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) closest to the caller’s location. In 1980, the first E911 system to also deliver the location of the caller to the PSAP was deployed in St. Louis, Mo.

Not quite two decades later, wireless emerged as a new communications method used by the masses. However, because a wireless phone number could not be associated with a fixed location, these new wireless phones could not be used to reach emergency services via 911. In March 1998, Xypoint Corp., now called TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), worked with GTE to deliver the first wireless call to a PSAP in Allen County, Ind. Soon thereafter, the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 standardized and mandated that 911 would also be used by non-landline phones.

Around 2004, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) began to proliferate as service providers started to interconnect VoIP with public telephone networks, marketing VoIP service as a cheap replacement for traditional phone service. Because many VoIP phones could work wherever a person could plug into the Internet, the landline method of determining the physical location of a caller by looking up the phone number in a database would no longer work.

Following a series of lawsuits in 2005, combined with pressure from the public and the telecommunications industry, the FCC implemented a mandate to require interconnected VoIP services to provide 911 service and, to provide notice to their consumers concerning the limitations of VoIP 911. As it turns out, this technology hastened the implementation of IP technology in call centers across the country, ultimately ushering in the era of NG911.

The mobile society

The objective of Next Generation 911 (NG911) is to enhance emergency communication services by adapting to this century’s always-connected, multimedia-enabled, mobile society. Beyond connecting callers to 911, this technology enables the public to transmit text, images, video and data to 911 PSAPs.

As far back as 2000, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) began planning for NG911. The project gained momentum in 2003 and continues today towards the ultimate goal of establishing national standards and implementation plans for advanced 911 systems and services, thereby replacing the legacy narrowband, circuit-switched 911 networks which carry only voice calls and very limited data. These legacy networks are gradually being replaced with resilient IP networks and advanced systems capable of routing multimedia communications based on the caller’s location. Just as text messaging became the first use of data in wireless networks, it also became the first use of data in NG911 centers.

Text-to-911: The first step

With education efforts underway about current and future text-to-911 capabilities, the FCC issued the following proposed rules in December of 2012: