Just 5% of the nation's 6,500 emergency dispatch centers are equipped to receive and respond to emergency text-to-911 messages.
That's not good enough for more than 41,000 signers of a Change.org petition. They want Congress to pass legislation requiring emergency centers to update their systems to accommodate texting.
Text-to-911 would have provided much-needed help for Lisbeth (not her real name), a mother of two who said she was repeatedly battered by her boyfriend in her home over several years. One day three years ago, when he was yelling at her, she tried to call 911 on her cell phone for help, but he broke down the door where she was hiding and demanded to know whom she was calling.
"I was trying to whisper, but he got in and punched me and asked me who I was talking to," Lisbeth said in an interview. That time, a neighbor overheard the fight and called 911 to bring police to the scene.
"911 works, but I wish it worked with text," she added. "If they had it back then, it might have made a difference." Lisbeth later moved into a shelter for abused women in California's San Fernando Valley and said her life has improved for herself and her children. "Anybody who is going through the same situation as I was should ask for help," she said.
The Federal Communications Commission last year required U.S. carriers and makers of some texting apps to provide emergency texting with their services, but the FCC doesn't regulate the nation's emergency dispatch centers. Instead, the centers are regulated locally by 3,200 different states, counties and cities, even though many of those jurisdictions receive federal funds for the dispatch centers.
Text-to-911 is supported by the nation's largest wireless carriers, which must begin routing 911 text messages to a dispatch center that requests the capability by June 30, or six months after a request is made, according to the FCC website. A downloadable spreadsheet on the site lists just 296 dispatch centers (officially known as Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs) as ready for text-to-911 out of an estimated 6,500 PSAPs nationwide, or about 4.5%.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai last August expressed concerns that FCC mandates for carriers might give the public a false impression that they can send texts to emergency responders when so few are prepared to receive texts.
The FCC last year also encouraged the public to call 911 rather than text, if possible. Some police and other first responders have said that a voice call in an emergency can provide important information that can be harder to impart with a text.
Still, advocates say texting can be invaluable for the hearing impaired or people who cannot or do not want to speak, such as Lisbeth. In some disasters, texting has been the only form of communication available from a cell phone because a text uses wireless frequencies more efficiently than voice — sending out short bits of information in quick bursts. Texts can be useful when wireless voice channels are crowded with callers in emergencies and can be useful when a wireless signal is too weak to support a voice call.
CallFire, a cloud-based voice and text company, originally sponsored the Change.org petition and has been frustrated by the slow movement on text-to-911 adoption. The private company has not approached any members of Congress about how possible legislation should proceed, but is hoping to drive public attention to the value of text-to-911.
"Over the past few years, the FCC has strongly pushed for greater availability and is requiring all U.S. wireless carriers to respond to PSAP requests for text-to-911…" said Barbara Palmer, chief revenue officer at CallFire. "While this is encouraging 911 centers to begin accepting text, the FCC cannot issue formal regulations for the [PSAP] space, so counties and states are moving at their own pace."
CallFire offers texting services to businesses and Amber-type alerts to schools and other organizations, but does not provide the text-to-911 technology needed by PSAPs, Palmer said. "We don't have any skin in the text-to-911 game," she said in an interview, but CallFire does hope to raise public awareness.
Palmer said the difficulty with PSAPs getting the new technology seems to be with the cost and not about finding the capable technology. Plus, emergency dispatchers are already overburdened with 911 calls, so training of dispatch personnel is needed, as well as a public education campaign about how to use text-to-911 to provide the appropriate, useful information to dispatchers.
Among the PSAP's already registered as supporting text-to-911 are those within the entire states of Vermont, Indiana and Maine, but PSAPs in other states have various approaches to adopting and implementing the technology, she said.
Palmer noted that a woman being held hostage in her home in Florida on Monday used the comments section of the Pizza Hut app on her smartphone to order a pizza and call for help. Police later arrived to help her, but Palmer argued that text-to-911 would have been more direct.
"We're not advocating text-to-911 as a replacement but in addition to calling 911," she said. "Texting is now ubiquitous and in the fabric of how we communicate."