On April 16, 2007, scores of Virginia Tech students attempted fruitlessly to send text messages to 911 seeking help as a gunman killed 33 people in a mass shooting on campus.
Because the local 911 center could only handle basic phone calls, those texts were never received. Technology has changed rapidly over the past seven years, however, so much so that an estimated 100 zones in 16 U.S. states are now covered by 911 centers that accept text messages. Even so, hurdles remain even in some of those areas as texts to 911 still depend greatly on the wireless carrier.
But officials pushing for full texting acceptance at the nearly 6,000 emergency call centers across America expect participation to grow in the coming months and years, particularly now that the four major wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — voluntarily met a deadline recently to make the service available.
While those providers are not the most prevalent companies in our area, Twin County 911 Regional Coordinator Jolena Young estimates the technology will be available in the Twin Counties by the end of 2015 or the start of 2016. Many hurdles remain, however, as she begins to put together the “road map” and building blocks to make Next Generation 911 a reality in our area.
Advantages of Texting to 911
Aside from basic texts to 911, some localities are expanding the boundaries of the service as they explore the possibilities of “Next Generation 911,” the ability to send photos and videos with a 911 text message. While that type of technology is still a way off, Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner said the ability to assess an emergency with a photo or video would be an incredibly useful tool for emergency responders.
“I think it would be a good thing. It is something they have never had in a school shooting. To me, that kind of stuff would have been really handy,” Gardner said. “Think of Interstate 77. They could send a photo of what is going on. It is like a battlefield when you go out in the fog. Maybe you need to get to a certain area and you can determine that by looking at a photo. The technology is there and it should be used. I think it is a great idea, but at the same time there are still many places in this county where cell phones don’t get service.”
With cell phones such a large part of life for young folks, most youth prefer to text now rather than make a phone call. Gardner said the technology has to be in place to keep up with the times.
“They text anything they do. They don’t talk,” Gardner said. “That is the technology that has to grow because that is how folks communicate now.”
Carroll County Emergency Services Director Mike Mock said texting is just another tool for people to contact 911 in the case of emergency, so he certainly would support the option.
“It’s part of a technology we are hoping to see happen here,” Mock said. “We also look it as another tool for people to be able to report emergencies if something were to occur to the current 911 system.”
The Carroll News asked its readers through Facebook if they thought a text-to-911 service would be beneficial to the area, and if such a service would be worth the extra cost that might be necessary from local government. The response was overwhelmingly positive from the community.
“I think it would be beneficial to our area,” Stacy Fullee said. “There are several places around here where if a cell phone is all you have, you can’t always get a call out because of poor signal, but you can get a text out in some of those spots.”
Added Patricia Leftwich, “I think any and every way possible to reach 911 should be implemented!”
“Great idea! There are many places that don’t have enough cell service for a call, but a text will go through,” said Sherri Trimble Porterfield.
“I’ve always had this fear of my house being broken into, or someone robbing my place of business and not being able to discretely get help without drawing attention to myself,” said Jennifer Martin.
Carolina Hall wrote that money can’t replace a child or teenager in the cause of an abduction.
“It would benefit all of us to be more discrete,” Hall said. “We can’t pay enough money for protection. One life saved would be worth it.”
Jim Gwyn said texting to 911 would be beneficial in domestic violence situations.
“Often, a victim will be denied access to a regular phone or can’t call due to inflaming the abuser even more,” Gwyn wrote. “Also, some victims can only afford a ‘text only’ plan. It could be a real life saver.”
“If the towers were to get flooded and you need 911 service with no land line available, you may not be able to get a call out, but most of the time you would be able to get a text out on a flooded tower,” said Travis Alley.
Not everyone agreed texting to 911 is the best idea, however. Joan King wrote that you can make a phone call quicker. Michael Littreal said texts leave a lot of room for misinterpretation.
“Also, how is one going to give all details needed in 120 characters or less? In my opinion it would just be a waste of money,” Littreal wrote.
Teresa French Catron opined that texting takes longer than a call.
“And in emergencies, every second matters,” she said.
Timeline for Twin Counties
As Twin County 911 Regional Coordinator, Jolena Young oversees the 911 call center that services Carroll County, Grayson County and the City of Galax. She recently attended a conference focused on texting to 911 and other Next Generation 911 capabilities. Young said much of what she learned from the conference will be used to help move the area’s 911 system forward.
“One of the things that I have as an objective this year is to begin to build the roadmap of how we will move from an enhanced 911 to Next Generation 911. A component of that Next Generation 911 is the ability to receive texts. I am working on that roadmap,” Young said. “We have the capability to implement text-to-911 with our current system.”
Even though AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon are providing a path for text-to-911, there are still some limitations. The SMS (Short Message Service) texting platform for a “store and send” technology does sometimes create delays.
“In the short term there is still the possibility that a text could be delayed,” Young said. “Another shortcoming in the short term is that the texting or the SMS wasn’t created to include geographic data, so even though the wireless companies have announced they can send texts to 911, they are not able to send geographic data. For most cellphones if we have a strong enough signal, it will send us XY coordinates. With SMS, the best you can get is the tower it came off of, so in the short term we would be very dependent on the texter being able to give us their location. The other limitation is currently if you are roaming, you are not going to be able to do the text-to-911. It is an evolving technology. The cell phone companies really have a lot of the work up front to do to get everything lined up, and then we will follow suit.”
Martinsville is one of the areas that has implemented the text-to-911 technology, Young said. Even though the capability is there, texters are still asked to call.
“They tell both the caller and dispatcher, once they figure out where they are, if at all possible it is much better if the person can call. That is stressed both in the publicity and the internal procedures,” Young said. “Unless speaking would put them in danger, or they are unable to speak, calling is the best option.”
Another current unknown is how much additional funding would be needed to implement the text-to-911 technology. Young said Virginia is currently doing a feasibility study on how to implement Next Generation 911. Some states are funding projects at a state level, but funding could also be done locally.
“As far as actual cost, that is part of the roadmap I am putting together. There is a quick and dirty way to do it that would be fairly low cost, but there are some limitations to that. Text-to-911 is just one element of it,” Young said. “Once we open that IP or internet protocol hotline, other things that are part of the next generation is the ability for people to send pictures and then being able to then pass those out in the hands of the first responders. It would include possibly street data, you could have feeds coming in from traffic cameras, it is evolving so you can take a lot of the data being captured and somehow funnel that in so it gets to first responders. Those aspects are still in their infancy and will be evolving over the next few years.”
As for an estimated time frame for text-to-911 to be available in the Twin Counties, Young said much will depend on when U.S. Cellular comes into the picture, and then when geographic data is able to be included with texts.
“Right now my best estimate would be somewhere in the last half of 2015 or the first half of 2016 is when I would see the technology in this area mature enough that we would could have all of the systems, all the pieces in place to potentially implement,” Young said. “That is subject to change. It is coming rapidly, but that is my best estimate.”