Call If You Can; Text if You Can't: An Update
The good news: All the major carriers can support it. The bad news: Few PSAPs can.
Late last week, the four major wireless providers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile) all announced that they were able to support text-to-911 communications "in all areas served by their networks where a 911 call center is prepared to receive texts." This is great news, although a careful read of the release suggests that there's a catch. Actually there are two.
While the providers may be able to support text-to-911 communications, the list of PSAPs (public safety access points) that have corresponding capability to deliver those messages is still frighteningly short. In addition, this action represents only an interim solution to a significant problem. Bottom line: It's cause for, as Nanki-Poo from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado" said with great effect, "modified rapture."
Few PSAPs Enabled
In an environment where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, the carriers' positive step must be considered in context. There's nothing that's troublesome about this carrier action to meet the FCC's established deadline. However, (and this is a big HOWEVER) the first problem is that of the just under 7,000 PSAPs in the U.S., the vast majority are not capable of completing the link between the texter and someone who can help.
In addition, the compliance level that was achieved last week represents only an interim--and by definition partial--move towards nationwide reliable text-to-911 service.
For starters, the inability of most PSAPs to support text-to-911 services means that one of the largest drivers behind the text-to-911 capability--members of the hearing and speech-impaired population--are still extremely limited in their ability to communicate with first responders when the need arises. With an estimated 37 million Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing or with a speech disability, the current step forward continues to leave this disenfranchised group out because of the current technical limitations.
The interim solution (and yes, the word "interim" should continue to get your attention) handles text-to-911 messages only via carrier-native SMS. This means that neither photos, videos, or information sent to multiple recipients reaches the target PSAP, because these capabilities are beyond the scope that SMS supports. In addition, in the limited geographic areas that actually have PSAPs that can handle text messages via TTY, or teletype, such inbound calls tie up an otherwise free line, creating potential problems for others trying to dial in over a busy line.
In a document published last week by the FCC , it is both clear and frightening to see the limited coverage that currently exists on the PSAP side. Most notable is that according to this data, in 31 states, no sites can support text to 911. (For the record, those unfortunate states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.)
Of those states that can support limited text-to-911, some or all locations in Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia can support access only with TTY. This is better than nothing, but creates other significant problems, particularly in the event of a large number of calls where TTY ties up multiple inbound circuits. The good news is that Cook County Illinois appears to have a sophisticated capability for this.
The diagram that follows was prepared by Mark J. Fletcher, ENP and Chief Architect of Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. It shows graphically those PSAPs that have some or all text-to-911 capability.
"While this is an exciting and positive step forward for Public Safety, and the culmination of a lot of hard work by many, it is important that we in the industry set the proper expectations of citizens and continue to expand the deployment of NG9-1-1 [Next-Gen 911] services both functionally and geographically," he said.
After viewing the map, I was reminded that there remains a long way to go. Residential and/or single copper POTS lines remain the most accurate devices for making emergency calls because of the high level of sophistication associated with the data that's provided along with the voice connection.
Next, and at a significant distance back, are mobile phones for emergency calls because, with luck, the person making the call can provide identifying information about his/her location and the nature of the problem.
Only after these options have been eliminated, does text-to-911 make sense, and even then, its likelihood of success is small given the capabilities of most of America's PSAPs. As the tag line goes, "Call if you can. Text if you can't." And, most importantly, encourage your legislators and other officials to raise the bar on PSAP technology.
Making the emergency call is only part of the challenge. Receiving the call and responding appropriately is the other.