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Text to 911 option coming locally

Ever wonder why you can’t text 911? Well, in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, you will soon be able to.

By the end of the year, millions of Houston-area residents are expected to have a silent alternative: the Text-to-911 option for emergencies.

Despite the popularity of messaging, the service hasn’t been available in most of the nation and much of Texas for the most life-threatening situations: pleas for fire, police or medical assistance.

In May, the nation’s four major wireless carriers met a voluntary deadline to have their end of the Text-to-911 technology ready to deliver customers’ messages topublic safety agencies that request the service, the Federal Communications Commission reported.

As a result, dozens of call centers nationwide and several in Texas can now receive texts from cellphones on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, which provides technical support for call centers in Harris and Fort Bend counties that serve more than 5 million residents, will be ready in the coming months to do the same with at least one carrier.

That’s important because most people in the Houston area call for emergency help by cellphone. In the first seven months of this year, 84 percent of emergency calls in Harris and Fort Bend counties originated from wireless lines, Greater Harris County 911 figures show.

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FCC rules specify that by year’s end, all wireless carriers – not just the major companies – should be able to provide text messages to call centers that have requested the service.

Those centers, however, are not required to exercise that option, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association – which is known as NENA.

Some states, such as Indiana and Vermont, are deploying the service statewide, he said. Others, such as California, leave the decision to individual public safety call centers or networks.

According to an FCC list dated Aug. 25, 18 states had at least one 911 center that could receive texts, though some were limited to one or two major carriers. The police departments in the Lone Star State which can receive texts are mostly in the Dallas Metroplex. There are none so far in the Houston area.

With the major carriers ready, the last hurdle is preparation at local 911 centers, said NENA government affairs director Trey Forgety.

As we know, text to 911 is currently available in some North Texas counties, which are so far the only places where it has been deployed. Nationally, however, only about two percent of emergency call centers around the country are prepared to handle text messages, and compliance is voluntary at this time. I’d guess that while cell calls are the bulk of 911 contacts, there’s still not much demand for texting emergency services.

All of Collin County supports the service. But it isn’t offered anywhere in Denton County. A handful of police departments in Dallas County can receive emergency texts: Balch Springs, Cockrell Hill, Sachse, Seagoville and Wilmer.

But texts still account for only a fraction of 911 requests in North Texas.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments oversees 44 call centers in a 16-county region that includes Dallas, Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties.

Of those centers, 25 have text-to-911 capability, and the rest will have it by the end of September, said Christy Williams, chief 911 program officer for the agency.

Since the service launched in January 2013, dispatchers at these centers have received only 12 text messages, compared with more than a million 911 calls, she said.

You can see why the rollout is proceeding slowly. To some extent, this is a chicken-and-egg question, and I’ve no doubt that over time usage will grow. There are also still some technical advantages to calling 911, though perhaps over time that will change as well. For now, the potential remains theoretical. For more on the text-to-911 program, see the FCC webpage.

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