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Text-to-911 Coming, But Dispatchers Much Prefer Voice Calls

Toby Talbot
AP Photo

This week, the four biggest mobile carriers met a voluntary deadline to be ready to allow consumers to send text messages to 911. But don't try that in an emergency just yet. Dispatchers in the Northwest don't yet have the capability to receive texts for help.

The Federal Communications Commission has been pressing cellular companies and emergency communication centers to accelerate text-to-911 rollout. Recently departed agency chairman Julius Genachowski argued, “Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century."

But even when the technology arrives, voice will still be the best choice, according to Washington state E911 coordinator Ziggy Dahl.

"When you and I talk on the phone, or anyone talks on the phone, we can tell a lot by voice inflection, how excited they are, background noises and all that. When you text, all you see is whatever digits show up,” Dahl said.

Many Northwest dispatch centers are in the process of upgrading their systems to include text message reception. Dahl and most of his counterparts around the region would prefer the new capability roll out everywhere at once for sake of consistency. That means you may not see the text-to-911 system go live until later next year or even 2016.

"It's not as easy as just flipping as switch," said Cheryl Bledsoe, who manages emergency services in Clark County, Washington. Bledsoe says call takers will need additional training, and the public would benefit from education about what to include in a text for help. 

"Text doesn't give the same data" as a voice call, said Bledsoe. There is no address information for starters. "A lot of texting back and forth will likely be needed," which worries Bledsoe because this would be time consuming. 

Emergency managers recognize there are scenarios in which a text message might be a preferable method to summon help.

"If you are voice-impaired, or you are in a hostile environment, somebody like an intruder is in your home or some other problem and you don't feel comfortable making a sound," said Dahl, describing some situations that he says have come up before. 

According to the FCC, if you text to 911 today, you are supposed to receive a "bounce back" message to inform you that the text did not go through.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.