Text-to-9-1-1: what’s next?

​Since the first text message was sent on Dec. 3, 1992, transmission of SMS messages has grown exponentially, becoming a common and even preferred method of communication among mobile phone users, young and old. And why not? Texting is easy, quick, and extremely efficient. It’s estimated that adults ages 18-34 receive an average of 1,000 to 2,000 text messages per month. No doubt, that far surpasses the amount of phone calls they get.​​

Already saving lives

Not only is text messaging efficient, but it also gives voice to those who don’t have a voice or can’t use it. That’s what makes text-to-9-1-1 so important and the reason it’s one of the first milestones on the road to NG9-1-1 implementation. 

Placing a call is still the most effective way to reach a 911 emergency call center. It gives the call-taker direct, uninterrupted contact with the caller in order to best understand the situation at hand and ask important questions. In some cases, though, a 911 voice call isn’t possible or practical, either due to physical limitations or because the caller can’t risk being heard. That’s where text-to-9-1-1 comes into play.

There already are recorded instances of text-to-9-1-1 being used to save lives. One such case occurred in Vermont, the first state to make text-to-9-1-1 available statewide. First responders were able to save an individual’s life during an attempted suicide as the person texted to 911. 

We know that text-to-9-1-1 will save lives. It’s now up to PSAPs to implement the infrastructure to handle them. In the same way that all calls into a PSAP must be captured and logged, the same is true for text-to-9-1-1 messages and all the other multimedia that will soon flood call centers as part of the implementation of NG9-1-1. 

Logging texts and other multimedia

One of the noticeable differences between a call and a text conversation is that each text has its own time stamp, whereas a voice call is treated as a single communication with a start and end time. This indicates that each form of contact – telephony and text – needs to be handled and logged differently. 

This brings us to the question of how PSAPs will log their text communications or, for that matter, all the other forms of media that will soon flood the PSAP with NG9-1-1. Logging is essential. And not just for liability protection or investigations and prosecution. Without it, accurate incident reconstruction can’t take place. Incident reconstruction is an important and valuable capability for any PSAP, enabling it to review synchronized incident files for investigation, quality assurance, process optimization, and other purposes. 

The audio logging systems that PSAPs currently use not only capture content, but also call metadata such as ALI/ANI information. Texts are not all that different. They are content-slim with similar metadata and require rather low space capacity, making them easy to store in an existing or separate interaction database. Depending on the system a PSAP is using, it might even be able to utilize existing user interfaces to display and respond to text messages, eliminating the need for significant personnel training. 

There are differences though. Unlike voice recording, there is no practical option to passively tap a text feed. A dedicated text logging feed must be established. This is typically done via a:

  • NG9-1-1 call routing element, either at the PSAP or elsewhere in the ESInet
  • Call processing equipment or CAD at the PSAP
  • Web-based text-to-9-1-1 application from a 911 text aggregator (TCC)

While the cell phone industry is implementing standardized text delivery to the PSAP, text logging interfaces are not widely standardized and might currently be provided in proprietary formats. 

An adjunct system, one that ideally integrates with the voice recording solution, handles the logging of text-to-9-1-1 communications. But this is only a partial picture of what’s actually going on and what will be going on once NG9-1-1 is implemented. 

With NG9-1-1, texters will also be able to send in images and videos of an event. The call-taker must be able to seamlessly dispatch this multimedia information to responders. And, of course, those communications must also be logged. 

So PSAPs have various communications surrounding any one incident--911 phone calls and text messages, communication with dispatch and responders, and eventually multimedia. Putting them all together is the next step.

While a logging or recording system doesn’t accurately organize each communication in a single event file, software solutions such as NICE Inform create a synchronized event timeline. These solutions organize all the data chronologically – communications, call taker keystrokes, NG9-1-1 multimedia, screenshots, and other data – to create a holistic view of the event. This event file can then be used for a multitude of purposes, including: investigations, evidence, quality assurance, training, and continuous improvement. 

On the road to NG9-1-1

Text-to-9-1-1 is just the beginning of the transformation to NG9-1-1. With that in mind, PSAPs should take a forward-looking approach, one that not only addresses their most immediate needs, but also those that are on the way. Tomorrow’s PSAP will soon receive many types of multimedia. Being able to effectively manage and log this data is a crucial first step to maximizing its value. 
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