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Dispatch Centers Slow to Adopt 'Lifesaving' Text-to-911 Technology

Only five percent of the 6,500 call centers in the U.S. are equipped to receive and respond to texts, according to the latest figures from the FCC.
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A man texts on a mobile phonePhilip Toscano / PA Wire

Sometimes calling 911 may not be the best way to report an emergency. In certain situations, the ability to text your emergency message could mean the difference between life and death.

Think of all the scenarios where this might be true: The victim or witness could have a speech or hearing impairment, or there could be a language barrier. In some situations, such as domestic abuse or other crime in progress, talking could make the situation worse.

“It can escalate the perpetrator’s behavior when they see or hear you talking on the phone,” said Ruth M. Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “There are all sorts of scenarios where texting would probably be in your best interest. You could be hiding in a closet or maybe you could use the phone behind your back to text.”

NBC News spoke to a survivor of domestic abuse who would like to see all 911 dispatch centers accept text messages.

Lisabeth (not her real name) is a 25-year-old mother of two who escaped a long-term abusive relationship. She now lives in a shelter near Los Angeles. She told NBC News about the night her boyfriend broke into her house, having beaten her earlier in the day. Lisabeth hid in the bathroom and called for help.

Congress is being asked to require 911 dispatch centers to upgrade their systems.

“I was whispering, so he couldn’t hear me, but he caught me on the phone, beat me again and broke the phone,” she recalled. “I wish I would have had the chance to text message for someone to come and help me. Maybe things wouldn’t have escalated the way they did.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires wireless carriers to provide this text-to-911 service. And since the end of last year, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have done that. But that’s just the first step.

Text-to-911 only works when the local emergency dispatch center upgrades its systems to handle text messages – and most have not. But so far, only five percent of the 6,500 call centers in the U.S. are equipped to receive and respond to texts, according to the latest figures from the FCC.

The FCC does not have the authority to require 911 dispatch centers to upgrade their systems, so Congress is being asked to do it.

A petition on calling on lawmakers to mandate text capability has now been signed by nearly 50,000 people. The online petition was started by CallFire, a voice and text company based in Santa Monica, Calif.

“No one is saying replace what we have; we want to augment what we have,” said Barbara Palmer, CallFire’s chief revenue officer. “This is about saving lives. The technology is extremely powerful; why not take advantage of it?”

CallFire does not sell technology that would allow text-to-911, so it has no skin in the game. Palmer told NBC News she simply wants to see a pervasive technology used to help people.

Cindy Barbera-Brelle is executive director of the Northwest Central Dispatch System in Illinois. It serves 11 communities northwest of Chicago and has been accepting emergency text messages since August of last year. Barbera-Brelle supports the petition to get Congress to get text-to-911 up and running nationwide.

“It should be available across the country, so that citizens everywhere, regardless of their situation, have an opportunity to get the assistance they need when they’re at risk,” she said.

Emergency officials: Text-to-911 really works

Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire have taken the lead on emergency text messages and now have the service available statewide. In Indiana, emergency dispatch centers in almost every county are now text-enabled. (See FCC list of Areas Where Text-to-911 Is Available updated monthly.)

Ed Reuter, emergency operations director in Bartholomew County in southeastern Indiana, calls the state’s text-to-911 program a “valuable tool that enhances public safety” and has already saved lives.

“We can now communicate with people who need to reach us, but who couldn’t connect with us before,” Reuter said. “Texting is what we all do these days and it’s now a part of public safety in Indiana that’s proven over and over again how valuable it is to the citizens of our state and the people who travel through it.”

Since going live in March of 2014, emergency call centers throughout Indiana have received more than 1,400 texts. Between 100 and 300 texts are now handled statewide each month.

Reuter told NBC News about a carjacking victim who was in the backseat of her own car traveling along I-65. The driver, who was threatening to kill her, couldn’t see her texting to 911.

“He didn’t have a clue that she was texting the mile markers to us,” Reuter said. “We were able to tell her that the police were nearby and State Police did make the stop and the arrest.”

Reuter shared some of the recent cases in Indiana that involved texts:

  • A witness who saw someone selling drugs to a minor could not speak but was able to summon police via text.
  • Several victims of domestic abuse have texted for help.
  • An emergency operator lost voice contact with a heart attack victim, but was able to communicate via text.
  • A flood victim waiting to be rescued was able to communicate with a National Guard helicopter via text.

“The system has paid for itself over and over – even though there’s no real cost,” Reuter said.

It’s now policy in Indiana to text back rather than call back when there’s a disconnected call because of those rare cases where a ringing phone could make the situation worse. Reuter shows new 911 operators a clip from Halle Berry’s movie, The Call, to make that point.

Calling is still preferred

Even in places where emergency texts are accepted, the best way to report an incident or request assistance is by calling 911, if possible, experts say.

Information can be relayed more quickly and efficiently by talking. Dispatchers say they learn a lot more by hearing the emotion in the caller’s voice and possibly the sound of what else is happening in that situation.

The FCC warns that texting 911 is different from calling in one more very important way. With a call, the dispatch center normally receives your approximate location. When you text, the emergency operator does not get that. So if you do text, you need to give your location or accurate address right away.

And what happens if you try to send a 911 text in an area where emergency call centers aren’t set up to handle texts? The FCC requires wireless carriers to send you an automatic “bounce-back” message which will advise you to contact 911 another way.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.