Imagine being on the freeway and encountering a horrific accident, one that almost certainly has resulted in fatalities. You instinctively reach for your mobile phone, and then freeze—because you are a member of the deaf/hard-of-hearing/speech-disabled community and text-to-911 service has yet to arrive where you live.
This is no hypothetical event. It actually happened to Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who spoke about it during her keynote address at the 2013 Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) national conference. Matlin—who has been a devoted advocate for text-to-911 service—reportedly said at the time, “Instead of being able to instantly text to 911, I had to trust and leave it to other bystanders. And I shudder to think, what if it had been me in the accident—how could I have called?”
Four years later, text-to-911 service still isn’t ubiquitous in the United States—in fact, it is nowhere close to ubiquity, as only about 14 percent of public safety answering points in the United States have implemented the service.
This leads to a critical question: why isn’t this lifesaving feature universally available today?
There should be no question at this point regarding the importance of text-to-911 service in terms of saving lives and property, and early adopters of this technology have proved that the text volume is low and it will not negatively impact the operations of the PSAP. As illustrated by Matlin’s experience, such service is vitally important to the deaf/hard-of-hearing/speech-disabled community. But there are other circumstances when making an emergency voice call actually puts the caller at greater risk, such as a domestic violence incident or home invasion—text-to-911 service offers a very effective alternative.
The real burning question then concerning text-to-911 service has nothing to do with its impact but rather how it is being implemented across the United States. Most implementations are being executed by individual PSAPs. This is not the way to do it—rather, text-to-911 implementations should occur on a statewide basis, as is being done in the state of Minnesota, and has been done in a handful of other states, including Indiana, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
There are several reasons why a statewide approach is essential:
- Text-to-911 calls often cannot be transferred—It is easy to transfer a 911 voice call quickly, usually with the correct location data, because every PSAP can receive voice calls. But there is no way to transfer a text-to-911 call from one PSAP to another if the receiving 911 center hasn’t implemented the requisite technology. In such circumstances, the PSAP that originally received the text has to place a voice call to the correct PSAP and then verbally relay the information contained in the text—this eats up valuable time and creates the potential for errors that could delay emergency response, putting lives and property at greater risk.
- Emergencies often cross jurisdictional boundaries—Recently in the state of Texas, a woman was kidnapped. She managed to place a text-to-911 call while still captive in the vehicle. When she placed the call, she still was in a jurisdiction that had deployed text-to-911 service; within a few minutes, the vehicle had crossed over into an adjacent jurisdiction that had not deployed this life-saving technology. Fortunately, the receiving PSAP was able to share the contents of the text with the appropriate law-enforcement entities, which were able to locate her and avert a tragedy. But if the woman had waited just a few minutes to place the call, after she had crossed the jurisdictional boundary, she would have received a message from the PSAP that it does not provide text-to-911 service. In that case, her only option would have been to place a 911 voice call and hope that the call-taker could pick up enough details from the background noise to locate her—truly a longshot. Speaking would have been out of the question because she could have been overheard by her captor, which would have placed her in even greater danger.
- People are forgetful—It is not unusual for people, especially in large metroplexes, to live in one municipality and/or county and work in another. If text-to-911 service is available where they live, they might not remember, especially in the heat of the moment, that it doesn’t exist where they work—with potentially disastrous consequences.
- People expect it and are beginning to sue to get it—Earlier this year, a federal court ruled that the National Association of the Deaf and three members of the deaf/hard-of-hearing/speech-disabled community could proceed with their lawsuit seeking to force the state of Arizona and various local jurisdictions in the state to implement text-to-911 service. The crux of the lawsuit is the claim that, without such service, this community does not have equal access to the 911 system. The simple truth is that people expect to be able to send 911 texts to their local PSAP because they can send texts to pretty much everyone else.
The Fastest and Most Efficient Way to Get There
Implementing text-to-911 service on a statewide basis is the fastest and most efficient way to resolve all of these issues. A statewide implementation approach will result in a more consistent level of service across a much wider footprint, as all PSAPs in the state will be on the same page in terms of how to deploy the service, including technology choices, public education campaigns, and governance approaches.
A statewide approach also closes the gap between the haves and have nots—often, rural areas lag behind their urban counterparts regarding the implementation of new technology because they lack the financial resources. Finally, the costs of implementing text-to-911 service (if any) will be spread more equitably and evenly across every PSAP in the state, making such costs easier to handle from a budgetary perspective for all involved in the effort.
Text-to-911 is a vital lifesaving service to which every American should have access, regardless of their circumstances. Implementing such service on a statewide basis will greatly shorten the timeline—which is in everyone’s best interests. This service has been available since 2012—after five years of waiting, it is time for states to step up and create a plan for statewide deployment, provide the resources and support needed, and assist the PSAPs to deploy this essential service.