Houston E-911 may receive emergency texts by early 2015

bpurser@macon.comMay 19, 2014 


    • If you are able, always contact 911 by making a voice call.
    • If you are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability, use a TTY or a telecommunications relay service if possible.
    • In most cases, you cannot yet reach 911 by sending a text message. View a list of text-to-911 deployments at www.bit.ly/texting911.
    • For more information, go to www.fcc.gov/text-to-911.
    Source: Federal Communications Commission

WARNER ROBINS -- Houston County is expected to upgrade its E-911 center by early 2015, if not sooner, to receive emergency texts, part of a nationwide trend encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission.

“It’s on our radar,” said Houston E-911 Director Ricky Harlowe. “We are going to do it. It’s just when I’m not sure.”

About $9 million has been earmarked for upgrades to the E-911 center from the 2012 penny-tax referendum, with funds available to facilitate the text-to-911 feature, Harlowe said.

The center will take a look at various vendors and ways of providing the feature to develop cost estimates, he said.

In January, the FCC recommended all wireless carriers and other providers that enable consumers to send text messages to telephone numbers should support text-to-911 capabilities.

As of Thursday, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon voluntarily started providing the text-to-911 service in their coverage areas where 911 call centers are capable of receiving them. Also, the regulatory commission has proposed mandatory compliance for all providers by the year’s end.

Meanwhile, 911 centers are encouraged to accept the texts as providers develop the capability. But the centers are free to decide whether and when to begin accepting texts. Most centers are expected to need upgrades to do so.

As a result, contacting 911 by text is only available in limited areas -- with the FCC warning that consumers should not rely on text messages to reach 911 during what the agency expects to be a transition period as more carriers and call centers embrace the technology.

As a safety measure, all wireless carries are already required by the FCC to send a “bounce back” message to a 911 emergency text where the service is not available.

As of May 9, Paulding County had the only emergency dispatch center in Georgia that could accept the emergency texts, according to the FCC’s most recently published list of text-to-911 deployments nationwide.

Also, only 16 states had centers equipped to accept the calls. Texas had the most with a dozen 911 centers capable of receiving the texts and a 13th center expected to be able to do so by September.

The text feature is sought primarily for situations in which it’s dangerous or impossible for a caller to speak.

Harlowe said verbal communication is still preferred because it’s fluid and allows for questions to be asked and answered more quickly than by texting.

“Text-to-911 would be an advantage because it’s speechless,” Harlowe said. “You’ll be able to text the 911 center, ‘Look, I have an intruder who just entered my home. I’m located upstairs in the closet. He entered from the back door, and it sounds like he’s in the master bedroom,’ or something like that.”

The E-911 center will be able to send a text back that an officer is en route, Harlowe said. Also, the caller can update 911 about what’s happening in the home, he said.

No immediate plans to offer texting in Bibb

Macon-Bibb County is looking at the texting feature but has no plans to provide it at this time, said E-911 Director Keith Moffett.

“We’re investigating the advantages and disadvantages, along with the costs and legal requirements to have the system,” he said.

Moffett said it’s always advantageous to talk to a person, but he said he understands technology is changing. “People do communicate in various ways now,” he said.

He noted some of the pros and cons.

“It’s an advantage that you are meeting the needs of the subscribers, especially those that like to text, that can’t be in a situation where they probably could talk. But it’s also a disadvantage because there’s no substitute for talking to someone,” Moffett said.

The texting feature also provides another new capability, Moffett said. Videos of what the person is experiencing may be attached, for example.

The Macon-Bibb County center recently purchased a significant software upgrade that is expected to implemented during the next 18 months and could easily integrate the texting feature, Moffett said. But there’s also a cost to buy those additional features, and cost estimates have not been developed at this time, he said.

“We want to go ahead and get our base purchase implemented, and then we’ll look at the extra features which might include that,” Moffett said. “But at this time, there are no plans to go to that capability.”

He said discussions about adding text-to-911 are new for the center, although the technology has been out for awhile. He said the center just implemented a new radio system and will be adding a new Computer Aid Dispatch system.

“So we already had some significant upgrades coming to the center,” Moffett said. “Our goal is to take the call and dispatch services in a timely manner, and if texting would add to that, then it’s something we’d definitely look at.”

Angela Tharpe, assistant director of Peach County’s E-911, said the FCC’s push for cellphone carriers to provide the service will likely force the issue for emergency dispatch centers across the nation.

For smaller centers, the bottom line will likely be funding because upgrades are required to be able to receive the texts, she said.

“It’s something all 911 centers are looking at,” Tharpe said. “We’re just not there yet as far as the capability.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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