Option to text 911 for emergencies in the works - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Option to text 911 for emergencies in the works

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - Almost every American has a cell phone and three quarters of them use it to text. That is one reason the Federal Communications Commission is pushing to make texting 911 possible.    

The FCC has been working toward mandating text-to-911 for several years now. One early motivation was the Virginia Tech shooting massacre in 2007. Students texted 9-1-1 as they hid for their lives, but those messages never got to dispatchers because 911 can't receive text messages.

This week, the nation's top cell phone providers are making 911 texts possible to send, but there are still hurdles on the receiving end.

On any given day around 750 emergency calls come through Hamilton County's 911 center. The vast majority are from cell phones. But, if you try to text for help and you'll get a bounce back message telling you to call.

"Society needs to move along with what we do and we don't need to be stuck in an age where we're living 20 years in the past," James Cummins said.

Young adults and people with hearing impairments are among the biggest supporters of the FCC's push to make texting 911 possible. This week many cell phone providers are meeting their technology commitment for it. All companies are required to by the end of the year, but that still doesn't mean your 911 text will be seen.

"Unfortunately we're not ready yet. there's a lot of work that has to be done," Hamilton County 911 Executive Director John Stuermer said.

Tennessee has been in the forefront with preparations, spending the last few years developing an IP-based network to connect all 911 centers in the state. Once that's in place, then equipment needs developed that allows for texting.

"No I would never text because a phone call is so much easier," William Fields said.

Some worry about the time texting takes. 911 calls jump to the highest priority for carriers to put through. Texts don't, and can sometimes take hours to reach their destination. Plus, dispatch officials say once they do receive it, getting all the info they need may take longer.

"We understand a lot of what's going on just to be able to hear it. With texting, all that goes away. So somebody will text us, we'll text them back. We have to wait instead of the general minute and a half we take for a call," Stuermer said.

They say it could be crucial in a situation where you don't want, for example, an intruder or abusive partner to hear you talking. Once text-to-911 is in place, the FCC advises to still call unless texting is the safer option.

Other challenges local officials say come along with adding texting capabilities is learning the person's location. Cell phone calls are easily tracked with GPS, but texts are not at this time.

They're also concerned about decoding the meaning of texts due to people using acronyms and abbreviations when texting. They could not offer a timeline of when the complete system will be ready to put to use, but say that day is getter closer.
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