It will be years before texting to 911 becomes widely available, officials say

Although text messaging is a way many people communicate, only a few 911 systems around the nation have the ability to accept texts.

And it will be years before that changes.

The Sedgwick County 911 system, like others in the state, doesn’t yet have the technological system in place to receive text messages, but text-to-911 will eventually be available, said Kim Pennington, interim director of the local system.

“We’re going to have to. That’s just the reality and the expectation of our community,” Pennington said. When it will happen, she couldn’t say.

There are times when text messaging is ideal, such as when someone has to hide or be silent, Pennington said. Or maybe a situation in which a teen is at home and her father is beating her mother.

Still, even when texting to 911 becomes available, those who take emergency calls will still prefer direct voice calls, Pennington and other emergency dispatch officials say. In a voice call, the 911 operator can take in all of the background sounds, which guide the operator and help inform police and emergency crews on how to respond.

A dispatcher can pick up on the emotional tone of a caller’s voice, the sarcasm, the edginess, said Justin Bowlin, a communications officer with Butler County Emergency Communications. All of those cues help the dispatcher to ask the right questions, such as, “Are you in immediate danger?” and “Are you able to talk to me freely?” There are ways to guide a caller into giving information nonverbally if the situation calls for it, but Bowlin didn’t want to disclose the specifics.

A voice call also will still be the best, fastest way for a 911 system to get the precise location of the emergency.

Having the technology in place to take texts is one thing. Being able to process them will require that 911 employees know how to translate and converse in the abbreviated messages in a typical text. Texting has its own language, Pennington said.

Nationwide, less than 10 systems accept texts now, said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs and chief regulatory counsel for NENA: The 9-1-1 Association.

“It will be several years before the entire nation has the ability for 911 centers to be able to handle texts,” Forgety said. The United Kingdom might be the only place in the world right now with nationwide 911 texting, he said.

“Our message for the public is: Call 911. Even when text becomes available, the message will be: Call if you can, text if you can’t.”

Texting to 911 will be especially useful to those who are hearing- or speech-impaired, the association says.

“Text-to-9-1-1 could also help in situations when a crime is in process; the caller is facing domestic abuse; the caller is injured and cannot speak; or other scenarios,” the association says in a Q&A about texting.

Noting how texting has become habitual with the younger generation, Forgety mentioned how people tried to send texts to 911 during the Virginia Tech shooting. He also noted a case a few years ago in Australia in which a young girl fell down a well and got stuck. She had a cellphone and adequate service, but she did not call Australia’s version of 911 or even text. Instead, she posted a plea for help to Facebook and was ultimately rescued.

Every day in America, he said, someone tries to send a text to a 911 system that can’t accept it.

When that happens, the nation’s “Big 4” wireless carriers have a system that sends a “bounceback” message that texting to 911 is not yet in place. Many of the smaller carriers are starting to use a bounceback message, he said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, starting Sept. 30, all wireless telephone companies and some other text message providers are required to transmit a bounceback to anyone who tries to send a text to 911 where texts are not yet accepted.