Top US cellular operators have begun offering SMS capabilities for contacting 911 dispatch centers. It's the first step in accommodating new data formats, but it's fraught with problems.
On May 15, AT&T Mobility, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, and Verizon Wireless began allowing anyone with a cellular phone capable of sending SMS to transmit emergency messages to E911 centers, which are officially termed PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points). However, in many areas of the country, none of the relevant parties -- dispatchers, emergency service organizations, and residents -- will have an easy time dealing with the feature.
On the surface, it seems rather simple. A person who needs to contact the police, fire, or ambulance services may text a message for help instead of making a voice call. In some situations, this could be a godsend.
For example, anyone who has a physical disability that makes it difficult or impossible to make a voice call, such as someone who is deaf or unable to speak, could send an SMS for assistance. Also, there are emergency situations where speaking would be inadvisable, such as hiding from an intruder in one's house or being in a bank when it is robbed. In these types of situations, silence is golden.
In addition, many people know that if cellular voice service is down or congested during emergencies (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes, or terrorist attacks), text messages will sometimes get through the system.
Unfortunately, there could be lots of problems trying to transmit an SMS. Cellular operators never guarantee that a text message will arrive quickly or that it will arrive at all. Although SMS is often very reliable, it was designed as a "best effort" service, not for time-critical communications.
In fact, the cellular operators have been quick to point that out, which could be a major point of contention as consumers begin using "text-to-911," as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is calling the capability.
Also, it might take more time for emergency dispatchers to obtain all the proper information from SMS versus a voice conversation. For example, when a person collapses in an office building, a dispatcher will need to know the person's exact location, gender, approximate age, extent of injuries (as much as possible), reason for the problem (if known), any relevant medical information, possibility of foul play, and anything else that might help the first responders.
If E911 is contacted because of a criminal activity, more or different information is needed. Also, dispatchers can help with people who aren't native English speakers.
People who contact E911 are sometimes distraught, confused or in serious distress if they, for example, are having a heart attack, fell down the stairs, or were the victim of a beating or shooting. Dispatchers are trained to help keep the caller calm and, where appropriate, take specific actions, such as simple medical procedures.
But there's an even worse problem for using SMS: Many PSAPs are technically unable to accept them. PSAP computer and software requirements can be complicated. The centers are located in large and small cities. They must deal with different emergency services and sometimes dispatch first responders to areas that don't have their own local police, fire departments, hospitals, or ambulances.
If PSAPs cannot accept text messages, a message will be transmitted back to the sender asking him or her make a voice call. But how many people will know whether the PSAP can accept SMS? This can take time, which could possibly cause problems in life-threatening situations.
For years the FCC and the US Department of Transportation have been working on Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) to allow PSAPs to accept other data communications, including photos and videos. This would introduce even more problems, such as delays in receiving the data, incompatible formats, and the possibility of fake photos and videos.
It seems logical and inevitable that eventually PSAPs would be able to receive different formats. After all, photos and videos could show details that a voice caller wouldn't or couldn't provide.
For the foreseeable future, though, cities will have enough problems dealing with text-to-911, and they had better have a sufficient number of experts and trainers who can deal with the new capability.
Re: emergency bandwidth? I keep an old landline phone handy in case at the home if I need to call 911. Even with no service connected you can always diall 911 with any phone. Fortunately, I've never had to call for an emergancy, but it's there just in case.
You brought up a few issues here. The first is that some people, especially seniors don't use or care about SMS. Frankly, most people -- including seniors -- should call the emergency number because it has advantages over texting, with real people at the other end.
I see SMS as a nice option, but probably not the preferred one, as I discuss in my article.
The problem, of sorts, might occur in the future when 911 (999?) systems can accept photos and videos. That could provide valuable supplementary information. But I assume that a greater proportion of seniors might not want to be "bothered" to send this information. That's especially where education is valuable.
However, it's important for seniors (and others, too) to realize that trying to take photos or videos of dangerous situations isn't advisable. Granted, that isn't available yet.
Another issue is free phones for seniors. There are some programs in the U.S. that offer feature phones and minutes to seniors.
Vulnerable Users Yes, this is a key point. How do we keep older citizens in the loop with such important technologies. Can we delegate a number that the elderly use on the landline, after they preregister their details over the phone. Do we go as far as giving all elderly people a mobile phone in a drive to get citizens up to speed on vital services??
911 should be free. No charge whatsoever. No hidden charges. There are plenty of public interest groups and if any cellular operator tries to slip in a fee, it will be caught and there will be a huge howl.
Re: emergency bandwidth? @Alan, I'm saying its going to be one of those hidden fees no one will notice. For example. you will see your phone bill go up by $0.05/month, most people will never notice something like that. They do it now.
But it should be free especially since its emergency services, but i feel the cell providers will always find a way to charge us and they will get away with it since its not called an Emergency services Fee...its just tacked on to your bill as a hidden fee
That sounds like a great 911 app. However, as you note, many people are not comfortable with the government obtaining their information. Still, many people might find it useful. It's wouldn't be used very often in any case.
Re: Treats! Another carrier surcharge! @Alan, the cell providers will find a way to add a new fee...they do it all the time or they will just raise the price of service a few dollars a year. They will find a way. like Cable TV bills, they go up for no reason at all and when you look at the bill its just extra cash on the normal cable tv bill not a fee...Whats up with that?
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