Moving the 911 infrastructure into the texting age will be 'like a fork-lift upgrade to the infrastructure.'
The 911 system has been around since 1968 — an eternity in technology years. Its age and the technology in play when it was implemented are part of the reason that updating the system has had bumps and grinds.
So when Utahn Mark Shanks sent an email asking "Can you text 911?" I learned the simplest answer, optimistically speaking, is "not yet."
In fact, it'll probably be another three years before the 911 infrastructure in Utah can handle texts.
Shanks posted an interesting scenario: "Say someone broke into your home and you can't talk or the intruder will find you." That scenario and the increasingly ubiquitous use of texting make the idea of texting 911 a good one.
The mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 launched a major push for the implementation of Next Generation 911, something the FCC acknowledged in 2011 when it expanded the definition of an emergency 911 call to include cellphone texts.
William Harry, executive director of Valley Emergency Communications Center, said the 911 system has been tweaked to accommodate cellphone calls, and tweaked again to recognize telephone systems like Vonage that work over the Internet instead of the legacy telephone network organic to the original 911 system.
But moving the 911 infrastructure into the texting age will be "like a forklift upgrade to the infrastructure."
Texts originally emerged as a nifty way for cell call signals to make use of little bits of unused data at the beginning and end of each cellphone call. That limited bit of data is the reason texts have such a tight character limit.
While most of my texts zip right through, I've had messages that show up hours or days later. "One of the things that keeps texting from being a viable 911 method is that texting now, there is no guaranteed delivery," Harry told me, adding that cell service providers will have to make text delivery a priority before texts can become a trusted 911 conduit.
Another snag is the sometimes uncertain shorthand texters use. "Just like some parents don't understand what their kids are texting, the same confusion could happen when someone is under duress" and sends an uncertain message, Harry said.
Enhanced data-driven 911 systems are also being designed to handle caller-submitted video, though Harry sees video as more of a tool for investigators to use after initial dispatch calls are made.
While 911 works across the country, it is not a system administered on a national level. States, counties and individual communities have their own 911 dispatch systems, and the sophistication at each location can vary. Harry predicts that even when texting 911 becomes available in some areas, there will be confusion among users who have an emergency but may not know whether the emergency dispatch system in that area supports 911 texts.
Emergency dispatchers have a workaround in the meantime.
VECC spokeswoman Geana Randall said dispatchers get enough calls where the caller doesn't say anything that dispatchers assess whether the call was a mistake or an emergency by listening to background noises. Then dispatchers will ask the caller "yes" or "no" questions and instruct them to press a number on the phone's keypad in response to the question.
The dispatcher will also suggest the caller leave the call open and just slip the phone into their pocket so the dispatcher can continue to listen to what's going on in the background. Randall said dispatchers can tell when the caller is talking to someone else on the caller's end in a way that gives the dispatcher important information about the nature of the emergency without tipping off the bad guy that 911 is listening in.