Pa. closer to 911 texting, has glitches

Most 911 systems can only accept texts from Verizon cell phone subscribers at this time, raising concerns that people with other carriers will send a text that can't be processed

The Times Leader

LUZERNE COUNTY, Pa. — Luzerne County’s 911 center is preparing to accept text messages seeking emergency help as part of a nationwide push for that option, but the service won’t be available for at least two more months, county 911 Director Fred Rosencrans said Friday.

An online chart issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) caused some confusion because it indicated the texting service had been activated in the county.

The county center is technologically equipped to accept texts now, but Rosencrans said he wants to train workers and educate the public about potential disadvantages of texting before he’s comfortable going live.

For example, Rosencrans sent a text to 911 from his home in the Back Mountain for testing purposes, and the cell phone tracking device that allows emergency workers to pinpoint location indicated he was two miles away.

Rosencrans immediately called 911 from the same spot on his porch using the same cell phone, and the 911 system reported he was at his home address.

“My main concern is locations are less accurate with texting,” said Rosencrans, who reported his finding to the state and the FCC, which are encouraging the texting.

Technical glitches
The county’s 911 system platform also could accept texts only from Verizon cell phone subscribers at this time, raising concerns people with other carriers will send a 911 text that can’t be processed, Rosencrans said.

The FCC has been working with major wireless carriers to accommodate the texting option. In the interim, major carriers agreed to provide a bounce-back message to anyone who sends a 911 text instructing them to contact emergency services by another means where texting isn’t available.

The bounce-back requirement should substantially reduce the risk of consumers mistakenly believing 911 authorities had received their text, the FCC said. Activation of text-to-911 service is “still in the very early stages and will not be uniform” nationwide because it may be provided by some phone service providers and 911 centers but not others, the agency said.

The texting is part of the “Next Generation 911” initiative for emergency response to keep up with communication technology used by the public and includes future goals of allowing citizens to transmit photos and videos to 911 centers.

Implementation will require a “continually evolving system of hardware, software, standards, policies, protocols and training,” a government publication says.

Rosencrans said he must develop protocol for the handling of texts. The push for 911 texting stemmed largely from a concern for people who are deaf, hearing impaired or speech-disabled, but Rosencrans said these citizens can reach 911 through a TTY, a special phone device that allows them to speak or type messages to 911.

“I’d rather take an extra two months or so and allow the industry and technology to catch up rather than make a knee-jerk reaction implementing the texting,” Rosencrans said.

Dauphin County
Dauphin County in the Harrisburg area started accepting 911 texts last September, said the county’s Emergency Management Agency/911 Director Stephen Libhart.

His county can receive texts only from Verizon subscribers at this time, and Libhart said he has no control over delays adding other wireless providers.

“That’s on the providers’ end,” Libhart said.

The pinpointing of locations is less accurate with 911 texts because the signal is not triangulated to multiple cell towers like an ongoing phone call to obtain a Global Positioning System, or GPS, location, Libhart said. The text signal must be detected during the brief time it’s sent and typically hits only two towers, he said.

“You must rely on a person to text a location or address,” Libhart said.

Text messages also compromise the crucial exchange between dispatchers and callers as an emergency unfolds, he said.

For these reasons, Libhart and other county and federal officials have stressed 911 texting should be a last resort.

“This is another means of communication, but whenever possible, people should call,” he said.

Dauphin’s 911 center has received about four texts a month since the option was added, and most were from people who were curious and had no emergency.

“We only had one actual text to 911 that was legitimate and required emergency response,” Libhart said, declining to detail the situation.

A 911 text could be valuable if someone had no cell or landline phone but access to an iPad or other tablet that is not a phone but can initiate text messages, he said.

Text messaging also may be preferred during a break-in or other crime where speaking would draw attention to a person in hiding, he said. However, a person in this situation could call 911 and say nothing, he said.

A dispatcher would ask the person to press any number on the phone to indicate talking is not an option and help is needed, and the phone signal would detect the location, he said.

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