Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Text-to-911 Coming, But Dispatchers Much Prefer Voice Calls

File photo of a 911 dispatcher
ICMA Photos

This week, the four biggest mobile carriers met a voluntary deadline to be ready to allow consumers to text to 911. But don't try that in an emergency just yet.

911 dispatchers in the Northwest don't have the capability to receive your text for help. The necessary upgrades are coming slowly all around the country.

The Federal Communications Commission has been pressing cellular companies and emergency comm centers to accelerate text-to-911 rollout. Recently departed agency chairman Julius Genachowski argued, “Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century."

But even when the technology arrives, voice will still be the best choice according to Washington State E911 Coordinator Ziggy Dahl.

"When you and I talk on the phone -- or anyone talks on the phone -- we can tell a lot by voice inflection, how excited they are, background noises and all that," says Dahl. "When you text, all you see is whatever digits show up."

In the Northwest, many dispatch centers are in the process of upgrading their systems to include text message reception. Dahl and most of his counterparts around the region would prefer the new capability roll-out everywhere at once for sake of consistency. That means you may not see text-to-911go live until later next year or in 2016.

"It's not as easy as just flipping a switch," says Cheryl Bledsoe, emergency management manager in Clark County, Washington. Bledsoe says call takers will need additional training and the public would benefit from education about what to include in a text for help.

"Text doesn't give the same data" as a voice call, explains Bledsoe. There is no address information for starters. "A lot of texting back and forth will likely be needed," which worries Bledsoe because this would be time consuming.

Emergency managers recognize there are scenarios where a text message might be a preferable method to summon help. "If you are voice-impaired, or you are in a hostile environment, somebody like an intruder is in your home or some other problem and you don't feel comfortable making a sound," says Dahl, describing some situations that he says have come up before.

According to the FCC, if you text to 911 today you are supposed to receive a "bounce back" message to inform you that the text did not go through.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.