How the FCC's Text-to-911 ruling impacts emergency responders

Every year, 911 operators receive 240 million calls, many of which save lives. But it’s not always possible or safe to call. A new ruling by the FCC offers citizens more ways to contact 911 by mandating that all wireless carriers and some message services support Text-to-911 by the end of the year. In life or death situations, this option can be invaluable.

Right now, particularly for members of the public, the emergency response landscape is confusing at best. Even though the four major phone carriers have made Text-to-911 possible, only a small percentage of public safety answering points (PSAPs) can receive and respond to those messages, and messaging apps add another wrinkle to the issue, especially since some are exempt from this ruling. As the new requirements are implemented, there’s still a lot of work to do to make Text-to-911 a true emergency touch point. Here’s the situation and what public safety professionals can expect.

While Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint made 911 texting possible in May, the PSAP infrastructure lags far behind, preventing most 911 call centers from receiving and responding to any texts.

To complicate the issue further, the existing infrastructure can receive SMS texts, but currently can’t support texts from messaging apps like WhatsApp, iMessage, or Skype.

Given the growing abundance and use of different messaging apps, PSAPs must be prepared to respond to both SMS and OTT communications.

The rules approved last week focus mainly on carriers and messaging services, and while there were some notable exceptions, including WhatsApp, all wireless carriers and many messaging apps will have to support Text-to-911 by the end of the year.

This ruling doesn’t change much for public safety professionals in their day-to-day operations. It does, however, change community outreach and communications, as education is important to ensure the public knows how they can—and more importantly, how they can’t—reach 911.

This ruling is also a step in the right direction for Next Generation 911 (NG911), a concept that could expand the range of content and delivery of information to 911 call centers. In many ways, this is a good opportunity for call-takers to gain experience with communication other than voice. Of the three solutions available for PSAPs today for text, one uses existing telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) protocols, a second uses a web interface, and the third is in line with the spirit of the NG911 standards.

Some fear this ruling will delay other needed upgrades to 911 call centers, but while these concerns are valid, in many ways the goals of Text-to-911 align with those of NG911. Many of the objections to Text-to-911 that have been voiced since the ruling mirror those made when PSAPs had to accommodate VoIP.

As the public adopts new technologies, PSAPs will have to adapt,  understanding that NG911 is more of a journey than a destination.

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