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:

  • By June 30, carriers are required to provide a bounce back response for text messages sent to 911 if services are not available.
  • By May 15, 2014, carriers must provide routing capabilities for text messages sent to 911.

These proposed rules do not necessarily mean that text-to-911 service will be available to all citizens by 2014; availability will depend on the deployment and implementation of hardware, software, and training at the more than 6,000+ PSAPs across the country. However, the proposed rules, when mandated, are expected to provide a foundation for the day sometime soon when all users will be able to reach out for emergency response via text messaging.

The FCC has always worked closely with the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired communities in order to ensure sufficient communication pathways are available and relatively easy to use. Around 2005, a push began to provide TDD (Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf) compatibility for mobile devices. Special, customized phones were considered as one possibility. However, understanding the rising importance and prevalence of text messaging, a variety of stakeholders led by TCS began to explore the possibility of providing text-to-911 capabilities for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Text-to-911 capabilities are critical in three key types of situations:

  • For callers in noise sensitive situations (such as hiding from an intruder)
  • For deaf, speech disabled or hard of hearing callers, and
  • For crises or situations in which networks are overloaded with voice traffic, and only smaller, text packets can successfully be transmitted.

Next steps

One recent pilot of NG911, including the first full deployment of text-to-911, was in York County, Va. These public safety officials understood the importance of next generation technology following an incident when a teenage girl contacted 911 to report that her neighbor’s house was being burglarized. The dispatcher asked the girl for a description of the suspects, however fearing for her safety, the girl was too frightened to go to her window. Instead, she lifted her smartphone and snapped a picture of the criminals and their vehicle. When she asked the dispatcher where to send the image, the dispatcher was stumped—the capability simply wasn’t available. The resourceful dispatcher instead had the girl send the image directly to her personal mobile phone. Ultimately, due to the image, the criminals were apprehended. York County officials immediately understood the value of NG911 capabilities.

Much is changing in the world of emergency services. An evolving case in point is the NG911 implementation progress made by the state of Iowa Homeland Security Emergency Management Division (HSEMD). The Iowa HSEMD is in the process of deploying an emergency services network, which complies with the NENA i3 standards. The solution will ultimately enable all 911 PSAPs in the state to accept incoming emergency requests from landline, wireless and VoIP end-users. The solution allows for the Iowa HSEMD to take advantage of the diverse and redundant IP networks owned and operated by the state. After the initial rollout, legacy wireless calls will be delivered via the new NG911 solution; additional plans include support of emergency requests using text, images and video.

Since 2010, we have seen significant movement in the 911 market with NG911 deployments in Iowa, Alabama and Tennessee on a state-wide basis and with additional multi-county awards in Virginia, Texas and elsewhere. These jurisdictions still have much work ahead of them. Legacy systems need to be decommissioned and traffic routed to the new IP-based systems, staff will need to be trained, and numerous details handled in the conversion to a significantly more sophisticated method of serving the public. With the exception of small trials, including text-to-911, no large-scale NG911 systems have been commissioned or are processing calls with full multimedia capabilities. The good news is that significant progress has been made in the underlying location technology that enables NG911 systems to function. Despite restrictive government budgets, the next few years will see the increased deployment and commissioning of such systems.

Unlike systems of the past, emergency responders of the future will be armed with life-saving, contextual information upon arrival to the location of an emergency. In fact, the use of the word “caller” becomes obsolete as NG911 systems enable the use of text or other non-voice communications media to be processed and delivered with equal ease to the PSAP.

Everyone agrees that NG911 will improve public safety’s ability to deliver on its mission in a rapidly changing world. Examples like the Iowa and York County implementations are only the beginning of improved public safety solutions that will ensure resources are best leveraged and lives are saved.

The challenge today is to deploy NG911 across the country.

Timothy J. Lorello is senior vice president and chief marketing officer of TeleCommunication Systems Inc.