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Why you can't text 911 in some places

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-17 05:00:32-05

CINCINNATI — There’s an active shooter in your building.

You’re hiding. You need help. Your situation could turn fatal if the shooter hears you call for police.

So you text 9-1-1.

"HELP! A MAN JUST STORMED IN HERE WITH A GUN."

But unless your emergency is in the city of Cincinnati or in one of 42 political jurisdictions covered by 911 dispatchers at the Hamilton County Communications Center, the only text you’ll get back is an automated one.

"Text-to-911 is not enabled in this area. Please call 911.”

The 911 industry has been hesitant to roll out texts to 911, experts said, because of limited resources and fears that text messages will make emergency response less effective. Only three dispatch centers accept and respond to emergency text messages in Greater Cincinnati, but an upcoming change means that number could grow by more than a dozen at the end of next month.

Even though the Federal Communications Commission now requires all phone companies to let customers send texts to 911, there’s no mandate for emergency call centers to receive those messages. Less than 450 of the more than 9,000 emergency call centers nationwide can receive text messages sent to 911, according to FCC records.

“The industry is still moving towards it, I think largely because the public thinks that they can (text 911). You can text everywhere else. Why wouldn’t you be able to text 911?” Hamilton County Communications Center Director Jayson Dunn said.

The Text-to-911 feature is designed to serve the same function as a 911 call. It’s a service that's ideal for the deaf and hearing impaired, in addition to domestic violence victims, hostages and others who can’t or are afraid to call for help in an emergency. It’s an alternative to calling 911, not a replacement, experts said. The industry motto: Talk if you can. Text if you can’t.

An emergency text message conversation processed at the Hamilton County Communications Center on Sept. 8, 2014. The incident location is redacted.

“Sometimes it’s just safer for the individual to text to a 911 center rather than speak,” said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Numbers Association, a nonprofit that represents thousands of emergency call centers. “In a domestic violence situation, a person may be hiding in a house. They want to be able to text so they’re not detected in their hiding spot.”

All Eyes On Hamilton County 911 Texts

Emergency communications centers across the state — and across the country, really — have been watching the Hamilton County Communications Center’s actions closely.

An emergency text message conversation processed at the Hamilton County Communications Center on Jan. 19, 2015. The incident location is redacted. The person called 911 shortly after sending this initial text, officials said.

In December 2013, the Springfield Township center became Ohio’s first and only center to integrate 911 text messages into its emergency voice call system. In fact, it's one of only three Ohio 911 call centers that accept text messages today.

The center covers 42 political jurisdictions in Hamilton County — all but Cincinnati, Norwood and Amberley Village, which each operate their own 911 call centers. Norwood and Amberley Village’s communications centers cannot receive texts. The Cincinnati Police Communications Center has just added the feature, but has not publicly launched it. The center is working with the Cincinnati Police Department to develop standard operating procedures for text message response.

"How are we going to roll out the response? How much information are we trying to get? We’re looking at the interview techniques that you might use. It’s a lot different. There are all the cues that we spend so much time training for and trying to pick up in a phone call that really don’t apply in a text message because emotions don’t work,” said Amity Bishop, Cincinnati Emergency Communications director.

When a person sends a text to 911 at the Hamilton County Communications Center, the message pops up on the same computer system operators use to answer calls. The message comes through about as quickly as a text message sends to another phone.

A sample text-to-911 conversation on an operator’s screen at the Hamilton County Communications Center.

“Everyone (in the industry) was worried. ‘What are you going to do if you lose a text?’ ‘I send texts all the time and sometimes the person doesn’t get it.’ That’s not our responsibility, though. We can only deal with what we can answer,” Dunn said.

The center’s 65 operators and nine supervisors are trained to respond to the messages within 30 seconds. Operators can choose from a set of automated responses or type out their own. Experienced operators can respond to a 911 text emergency and take 911 phone calls at the same time, Dunn said.

Watch a video demonstration below of a sample text-to-911 interaction at the Hamilton County Communications Center.

 

 

911 text conversations can end in seconds or drag out for much longer. Just like a phone call, the timing depends on the emergency. The below text message conversation with a 13-year-old girl lasted for about an hour, Dunn said.

 

Why Most Communication Centers Are Hesitant To Accept Emergency Texts

If text-to-911 can save lives, why aren’t more communications centers capable of responding to text messages?

Dunn, who presented on Hamilton County’s experience at a conference for industry leaders, said many are concerned their staffs won’t be able to keep up with the texts.

“The perception in the industry is that we’re going to get flooded with texts because everyone texts so much. There’s a concern that there’s going to be a lot of false texts, and there’s going to be a lot of people playing the system,” he said. “They feel like they’re going to have to increase staff and do a lot more.”

Despite those concerns, Hamilton County hasn’t been flooded with text messages or prank texts. Not even close.

In 2014, Hamilton County operators received just 282 text messages. By contrast, they received 551,101 calls in 2014. This year, operators have received 493 emergency texts. They’ve received more than half a million phone calls.

An 911 text message conversation processed at the Hamilton County Communications Center.

Bishop said she thinks texting 911 is less popular because people want to hear the voice of reassurance.

“People call 911 because they are out of their comfort zone. They want someone to tell them it’s going to be OK. They don’t want to be texted that it’s going to be OK. They want someone they can make a connection with,” she said.

Others are reserved about emergency text messaging because the process can take longer for operators to receive critical information, and consequently for first responders to dispatch. Texts sent to 911 don’t reveal the exact location someone is texting from — only the latitude and longitude coordinates. It also makes it harder for operators to listen to vocal cues to determine the severity of the situation.

“That’s the biggest challenge,” Hamilton County 911 operator Scott Brown said. “You’re not actually hearing their voice. You’re not actually hearing what’s in the background. You’re not hearing anything. It’s just the text coming in.”

Scott Brown, a 911 operator at the Hamilton County Communications Center, answers emergency text messages and calls. Taylor Mirfendereski | WCPO

Some officials are nervous about how to handle slang, emoticons and text messages sent in a foreign language.

There’s also a technology investment to make emergency texting a reality. Some 911 centers don’t have the resources to pay for that equipment or support from local leadership.

“It’s a decision of leadership from the mayor or city council right down to the head of the 911 center. In addition to that commitment of leadership, it’s also a commitment of resources. The resources will vary depending on the type of system they use to receive texting into this 911 center,” said Fontes, who leads the nonprofit group for emergency communication centers.

In order to receive text messages, communication centers must choose which technology they want to use.

One option is to fully integrate the text messages into their phone system, like Hamilton County did in 2014. This can be a costly option. With approval from the County Commissioners, Hamilton County paid about $13,000 to upgrade its software, Dunn said, and the county pays $12,000 annually to a text messaging company.

A second option is to opt for a free web browser-based program that processes text messages on a terminal not attached to the phone system. While the software costs nothing, this option can require an operator to be dedicated to the terminal. Bishop said the Cincinnati Police Communications Center is using this system until the technology is available to integrate text messages with its phone system.

Norwood, Amberley Village and Cincinnati don’t have the capability to integrate text messages with their phone systems now because their service provider, Cincinnati Bell, hasn't implemented the technology to do it. But by the end of January, a Cincinnati Bell upgrade will make that option a reality for those call centers, in addition to 12 others in Greater Cincinnati. That includes call centers in Northern Kentucky, where texting is not available.

"It’s like upgrading your iPhone. We’ll reboot one day and (the technology will) be there," Bishop said.

It’ll be up to the call centers to decide whether or not to participate. Josh Pichler, a Cincinnati Bell spokesman, said there won’t be a cost for the upgrade. Norwood and Amberley Village emergency communication leaders said they intend to opt in for text-to-911. That means citizens in emergencies should soon be able to send 911 texts from anywhere in Hamilton County.

When Hamilton County first launched its text-to-911 system, Dunn offered to process texts on behalf of the other call centers in the county. Amberley Village Police Chief Rich Wallace said he declined because not every phone carrier was allowing customers to send 911 text messages at that time.

“I was afraid to do it before all the main carriers were on board. If we start promoting text to 911 and we only have certain carriers on board, are we sending a false message to the public? We need to make sure that everybody — when we put this out there — that everybody has the same capability of texting 911."

A sample 911 text conversation.

Two years into the Hamilton County Communication Center's texting initiative, Dunn said there's nothing its 911 operators have had to change. The center is now developing text-friendly medical instructions such as how to administer CPR, Dunn said.

Will Text-To-911 Become More Widespread?

The widespread lack of service concerns some industry leaders. In an age where most 911 calls are made from wireless devices and Americans send 4 billion to 6 billion text messages daily, most people assume they can text 911 from any location, experts said.

During the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007 — years before phone carriers allowed customers to text 911 — several students tried to text 911 during the shooting, Fontes said. The text messages didn’t go anywhere.

Because there are a few areas in Hamilton County where text-to-911 does not work, Fontes said it’s critical for 911 leaders across the country to work together to deploy the feature when more than one 911 center serves an area.

“You’ll sit there and say ‘Oh my gosh. I can text where I live, but I can’t text to 911 here,’” Fontes said. “I think it’s important that they work in concert. It will help with educating the community, because you can educate everyone. They would be able to share in the education awareness cost.”

In some parts of the country, such as Vermont and Indiana, emergency texting has been implemented with encouragement from the state level. Most Indiana 911 call centers can receive text messages, and Vermont centers accept messages statewide.

Bishop said she thinks we’ll eventually be able to text 911 from anywhere in the country, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

“It’s not going to be a swift rollout because a lot of communities that have stepped up and have the 911 service can’t really roll out that next (generation) technology. They can’t just write a check. They can barely afford to pay their dispatchers,” she said.

Dunn also expects more 911 centers to get on board.

"It’s something that people need. I strongly feel that after a certain point the criticism is going to be 'Why are you not taking texts?' versus 'Why did you decide to?" he said.