As of May 15, all four major wireless carries — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — are now providing their customers the ability to text 911 services, but only in areas where public safety answer points (PSAP) have been upgraded to receive the information.
Mobile County was the first in the state to request the service and was ready for launch on day one.
Ruben Robinson, IT Director for the Mobile County Communications District, said the new technology would provide a great service for county residents.
“Hopefully it will be a good tool for those people who are deaf or unable to speak,” Robinson said. “Normally they are tied down by a TDY machine, but now, they can contact 911 in an emergency from anywhere.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates the wireless service providers, but has no authority over local communications districts and 911 services.
As of late 2012, all four major service providers were voluntarily committed to offering the service by 2014, and FCC commissioners voted to approve the program earlier this year.
“This is Phase 1, which only allows operators to receive a cell phone number, not a location of the caller,” Robinson said. “During the middle of the next year, there may be upgrades and we might able to get more information as far as the actual location of the phone call.”
Operators in the communications district will receive texts through a web interface and will also be able to respond to the messages. The MCCD connects calls to emergency services in Mobile and other agencies, including the police departments of Saraland, Prichard, Satsuma, Chickasaw and Dauphin Island.
A second phase of development, tentatively planned for next year, would allow pictures and videos to be transferred to 911 operators as well. Currently, that isn’t possible because of the outdated copper wires used by some service providers and most PSAPs.
Robinson said the FCC is planning to mandate that service providers upgrade to fiber-optic lines by next year — at which point it would be up to local control centers to upgrade the technology on their end.
“It will require an update of our system to prepare for video and picture streaming, and we’re looking at that in September or October,” he said. “We’ll be ready, even if the (service providers) don’t have the technology in place yet.”
As far as the current set up, Robinson said it wouldn’t cost the MCCD any additional funding because it only required creating a separate secure network feed on computers the district already owns.
“We’re using current hardware that’s already in place, so there’s no cost to us,” he said. “The only thing we needed was time to get everything ready.”
Before launching the program, Robinson said he spoke with other communication districts from around the county that have already started similar 911 texting programs.
Vermont started using the program back in 2011, but only with two of the four main carries, and a similar program was also started in Durham, N.C.
Both agencies only received a few texts throughout several years.
“The district in Vermont said they’ve received three or four texts in domestic violence situations where someone was afraid to be heard and one during an attempted suicide,” Robinson said. “They said handling the additional calls really hasn’t been an issue for them. We’re just doing it because it’s useful for our citizens.”
Robinson said the MCCD is trying make the public aware the service is available to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile customers.
“The biggest thing we want to get out is not to text 911 if you have a medical issue, unless you can’t speak or hear,” he said. “Only text when you feel your life might be put in danger by calling.”