HOUSTON -- The Federal Communications Commission is pushing 911 call centers around the country to upgrade systems and allow people to text 911. The idea is one borne of tragedy, but many who answer those calls are concerned about the technical obstacles that come with allowing the public to text their cries for help.
Nearly 9,000 calls for help stream into the Houston Emergency Center every day, and close to 80 percent of those calls come from cellphones. These figures would indicate texting 911 would be a natural, if not an easy, progression of our emergency response systems.
"There may be what we all perceive as benefits," said Sonya Lopez-Clauson with Greater Harris County 911. "But they're actually a lot more challenges."
The FCC began pushing the idea of Next Generation 911 after the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007. Many of the students on campus feared the gunman would hear them making a call, so they sent desperate texts to 911. None of those texts were received because 911 call centers were not equipped to receive text messages.
However, Clauson said allowing 911 call centers to accept texts is a massive technical undertaking. The first concern is reliability.
"There's no guarantee the text is even going to go through," said Clauson
We've all sent a text message that didn't make it; in an emergency, that can be fatal. Clauson said the next challenge is finding the person sending the text. With landlines, 911 can immediately pinpoint a caller's address, with a cellphone dispatchers can get close to a caller's location, but with a text, that's not a possibility yet. A problem compounded by the fact that, in our area, there are 40 911 call centers covering 49 cities in two counties.
"There's no guarantee that it's going to route to the proper 911 call center," said Clauson. "What if they're answered at Houston 911, but they actually need to be transferred to Bellaire? How are we going to transfer that text?"
That brings up the problem of time.
"Spend time typing a message, waiting to see if the caller receives the message," said Clauson.
In an emergency, seconds are crucial. Clauson worries with text messages, call takers will spend precious minutes pulling detailed information out of a person that would normally only take seconds with a phone conversation.
Clauson said another problem is personal connection. Emergency call takers are trained to pick up on voice cues, background noises or anything out of the ordinary. With a text, call takers will have to work harder to determine if a call is true emergency or a hoax.
"We're going to have a big challenge with the abuse to 911," said Clauson.
Clauson said these are all problems a task force has been working on for the past few years, along with upgrading the system. While 911 texting will eventually become a reality, it's still up to the individual to decide how they want to call for help.
"Just because you can text your friends, it may not be a good thing to text 911," said Clauson.
Clauson adds texting to 911 is still several years away from being implemented. In the interim, dozens of police and fire departments and private companies are weighing in on this issue.
In February the National 911 Industry Alliance came out in favor of texting 911, but urged the government to come up with a standardized system. Alliance officials wrote that not to have a standardized system "will be gambling with the public's safety and security.