Following on the heels of the Federal Communications Commission and the four national wireless carriers committing to offering text-to-911 capability, TeleCommunication Systems has introduced what it calls the first commercial enabler of such a service.
The FCC has proposed requiring all wireless carriers and some over-the-top text messaging providers to implement technology that will allow customers to send text messages to 911; the four national wireless carriers made a voluntary commitment in early December that they will enable text-to-911 by 2014, for emergency call centers which request the service and are ready to handle it. TCS Smart911 is currently being offered to public safety answering points for free as an OTT application for responding to emergency SMS; Verizon Wireless is the first carrier to have signed on to offer it to subscribers. The data-only service (which does not link additional caller information to voice emergency calls; that is a paid service from TCS), to help public safety agencies get their feet wet with utilizing and responding to emergency SMS, according to Thomas Ginter, VP of the Safety & Security group at TCS.
Ginter said that first responders have reservations about utilizing SMS, fearing that they will be overwhelmed with the texts and photos. However, he said, that perspective changes once they get a chance to see how useful the information can be in improving workflow rather than distracting from it, and improving call handling and dispatching — so TCS is offering some emergency text services for free to encourage adoption.
Meanwhile, Ginter said, the public often doesn’t realize that texts to 911 currently is not operational.
“A lot of people go, ‘of course I can text 911, I just haven’t.’ They think it’s possible, they don’t realize that it’s not,” he said. The FCC has asked, and the national carriers have said they will, soon implement a bounce-back message that alerts texters when text-to-911 service is not available in their area.
TCS Smart911 incorporates information from the Smart911 online database, where people can set up an online profile for first responders with details on medical conditions, disabilities, photos and other details on themselves and members of their household.
TCS routes half the wireless 911 traffic in the country, Ginter said, and is a major provider of texting services, with as many as 800 billion SMS messages a year passing through its equipment. “We have deep understanding of texting infrastructure,” he said, which will allow TCS to “get the best out of text that is possible” for receiving, assessing and properly routing emergency SMS to the nation’s 6,000 primary and 1,000 secondary emergency call centers.
The company said that although voice is still, and should be, the most reliable emergency communication method for most people, the ability to send a text message to 911 will be a valuable resource for certain populations, including the deaf/hard of hearing community and young children who may be facing abuse and unable or unwilling to make an emergency phone call.
The TCS Smart911 product is being delivered in collaboration with Rave Mobile Safety, which provides software for campus and public safety. York County, Va., announced in December that it is starting the text-to-911 service.
TCS also announced this week that it has completed the first phase of next-generation 911 services in Iowa, which is the first in the nation to complete such a statewide deployment.
All 119 of the state’s PSAPs are now interconnected based on the National Emergency Number Association’s i3 specifications for NG911. All wireless carriers in the state now send their 911 calls through the state’s NG911 system, which processes and routes the calls to the proper PSAP.
“A great many Iowans use communications devices that offer text, video and picture messaging capabilities; and we must be able to utilize this technology as a tool to increase the safety of our citizens,” said Barbara Vos, E911 program manager for Iowa’s Homeland Security Emergency Management Division. “We have an average of 53,000 emergency calls each day in Iowa.”
With the new system in place, she added, “our PSAPs are now able to receive detailed information quickly and accurately.”