From SMS Text-to-911 to Photo & Video-enabled MMS: It’s Time to Think Ahead

texting 2.jpgIt ha​s been almost three years since the four major carriers in the U.S. – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – all voluntarily committed to providing text-to-911 service. Since that time, text-to-911 deployments in PSAPs across​ the U.S. have steadily increased. While we're a far cry from widespread adoption, it's fair to say we're on a slow but steady march to progress. (Today, there are 802 PSAPs on the FCC's PSAP Text-to-911 Readiness and Certification Registry list, compared to 500 last March, and just over a hundred the year before that.)​

As time marches on, there are also more stories highlighting how text-to-911 can save lives. In April of last year an ​ Indiana woman texted 911 to report she had been kidnapped and was being held at gunpoint. She was able to text a description of the vehicle along with the vehicle's direction of travel. Police intercepted the vehicle and rescued her. In January of this year, there was another kidnapping and rescue thanks to the ability to text – but this one had a twist. The woman called 911 from the trunk of a moving car being driven by her abductor. After the signal was lost, the dispatcher texted her ​back.

These stories, of course, had a happy ending. But in other tragic cases, where texting was not an option, victims were not as fortunate.

One of those high profile tragic stories was the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida. Many victims inside the club were not able to call 911 out of fear of drawing attention to themselves. But because text-to-911 was not available, they had to resort to texting relatives. This drew a large outcry and shined a light on an obvious fact: while hundreds of communities across the U.S. have access to text-to-911 services, the vast majority still do not. There are close to 6,000 PSAPs in the United States. Only about 13% are equipped to handle texts today.

Few incidents illustrate the life-saving potential of text-to-911 more poignantly than the Orlando Pulse Night Club shooting. We can only speculate about the lives that could have been saved. But some 911 texting advocates have even gone one step further, suggesting that the ability to transmit photos and videos, in addition to texts (known in the industry as Multimedia Messaging Service or MMS), could have made a difference in Orlando as well, by better helping to identify the location of the shooter and the victims. Supporters agree that MMS would give first responders much needed situational awareness in many different types of situations, including active shooter and hostage scenarios.

But with one exception – (I'll get to that in a minute) – MMS is not supported by the major carriers today, largely because standards are lacking, and also because current FCC rules only require that carriers accept and transmit SMS 911 text. SMS 911 text was adopted as an interim solution to full-fledged Next Generation 911 which is still years away.

To be fair, carriers aren't the only ones shying away from these new modes of communications. Many 911 centers are weary that adding text-to-911, and then photos and videos on top of that, will add to their workloads and slow response times. They are also fearful of the impact that graphic photos and videos could have on their telecommunicators.

"It's hard enough for call-takers to get on the phone and listen to people who are experiencing a large amount of stress," said Richard Smith, Product Manager of Incident Reconstruction Solutions, NICE Public Safety. "Seeing a graphic photo or a disturbing video is going to make that even harder."

Across the border, where agencies are also studying requirements to implement NG911 in Canada, experts like Eric Torunski, Executive Director of the CITIC (Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group), agree that implementing new multimedia emergency communications is going to take more than technology; it's going to take training to deal with all the new unknowns.

But fear of the unknown hasn't kept one PSAP from diving in.

The Durham Communications Center recently announced that it is the first municipality in North Carolina – (and to the best of my knowledge one of the first in the United States) – to enable direct texting with photos. According to the Durham ECC announcement, Sprint customers can send a photo as an attachment to their 911 text. The announcement also claims that Sprint is the first national carrier to ​enable its customers to have the ability to attach a photo.

"During a traumatic event, it is often difficult to remember a license plate number, vehicle description, suspect descriptions, and so forth," said Durham ECC Director James Soukup. "This technology will allow Sprint customers to send a picture with a 911 text to help in these types of incidents." Soukup also said they pass along all of the information during dispatch, which helps the responding public safety agency be prepared for what they will encounter, or need to look for, upon arrival at the scene.

As text messages and multimedia become part of the emergency communication stream, PSAPs not only need to consider how they'll receive them, but also how they'll record and manage them on the back end.

"Just as it's essential to record 911 and radio calls, it's equally important to log text communications, especially in those high risk situations where a person in need of emergency service cannot call," said Diamond Chaflawee, Director of Business Development for NICE Public Safety. "Think of how often your PSAP reproduces voice recordings for quality assurance, investigations and evidence. Reproducing emergency communications is going to be different in the future. In addition to text messages, there could be multimedia, such as pictures that people snapped of suspects or license plate numbers. It's all going to be part of the incident record."

These new sources of information will also play into the decisions that telcommunicators make, and sometimes those decisions will be called into question, Chaflawee added. And that will make the reconstruction of the incident all the more important. You'll want to be able to reconstruct the incident from the telecommunicator's vantage point: 'This was the information I had to work with, this is what I heard, and this is what I saw.'

The good news is that while some carriers are behind the curve on MMS, some companies like NICE that specialize in multimedia recording and reconstruction, are ahead of it.

"The rollout of text-to-911 seems to be taking some time, so moving forward to MMS is going to be a way off," said Smith. "We haven't received any specific requests from PSAPs to log MMS but when we do, we are ready."

NICE already has direct integrations to leading NG911 and Text-to-911 platforms.

"NICE goes beyond capturing 911 texts to enabling PSAPs to search for, retrieve, review, export, save and share text conversations for investigations," said Patrick Botz, NICE Public Safety Director of Engagement. "While it's important to capture these conversations, it's also important to be able to easily find them, evaluate them for quality assurance, and use them as digital evidence," he added. "So we've developed the capability to allow agencies to share these conversations. For example, if you have a text conversation, you can export it into PDF format and share it with investigators or the district attorney."

Texts can also be combined with recorded 911 calls, radio, screens and other incident data to create a complete, authentic incident timeline.

In terms of getting ready for what's ahead, Smith has this advice for PSAPs: "They need to be looking at holistic, long-term solutions," he said. "They need to be future-proofing now, because these new types of communications are coming."

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