Text to 9-1-1 Progress Slower than Expected
Tuesday, July 07, 2015 | Comments

In the year since the May 15, 2014, voluntary text-to-9-1-1 deadline, public-safety answering points (PSAPs) and the cellular industry have continued to work toward deploying the service, but momentum has been slower than expected.

“It’s progressing,” said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “Is it progressing as rapidly as we would like across the nation? No. It’s gaining momentum. I hold out hope. I’m not pleased, but I'm not disappointed.”

Somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of PSAPs are live with text to 9-1-1 based on estimates from the FCC and vendors.

Agencies in about 25 states have deployed text-to-9-1-1 service or have declared they are ready to receive emergency texts, according to a master registry maintained by the FCC. All PSAPs in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have declared readiness or have launched, and a large number of PSAPs in Indiana and Texas have also declared they are ready to receive texts or have launched service.

The registry has removed one significant barrier PSAPs faced when preparing to deploy text to 9-1-1. Previously, PSAPs had to make a separate request with each carrier. Now, carriers are required to monitor the registry and once a PSAP registers, they must comply with the service request within 180 days. Fontes said carriers are meeting their six-month deadlines and the process is operating as it should, but more progress could be made.

TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), which provides 9-1-1 systems, has worked with about 500 agencies that now have live text-to-9-1-1 service and about 300 more that are in the process of deploying it, said Kent Hellebust, vice president of wireless and VoIP services at TCS. Based on those figures, TCS estimates about 1,000 PSAPs out of about 6,500 total are now live with text to 9-1-1.

Funding Challenges
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing PSAPs as they make decisions about implementing text to 9-1-1 is funding.

“We know that 80 percent of 9-1-1 calls are from wireless devices,” said Fontes. “We know texting is in the billions of text messages. You’d think 9-1-1 centers and their leaders would want to ensure that texting is available in their communities. I’m surprised there has been a less-than-rapid deployment. It goes back to leadership and funding.”

While fees and taxes are collected to fund 9-1-1 services such as text to 9-1-1, often those funds don’t make it into the hands of the PSAPs. Fontes said as fewer people maintain a wireline phone, the 9-1-1 fees collected on those lines are diminishing. In addition, fees that are collected are often raided for administrative costs and general treasury budgets. Some states are even reducing 9-1-1 fees, said Fontes.

“I’m not sure how you can reduce fees in an environment where you also have to budget and plan for next-generation systems,” said Fontes. “It’s frightening.

“We’re at a time now where what we really need to do is figure out how to properly fund 9-1-1. Each year, 240 – 250 million 9-1-1 calls are made. 9-1-1 is the first link in the chain when the public reaches out to get assistance, and it’s woefully underfunded. That’s tragic.”

Deployment Hurdles
Another factor slowing text-to-9-1-1 deployments is fear of the unknown, said Fontes. Some PSAPs continue to hold on to concerns about text volumes and the potential impact on operations even though live data doesn’t bear those fears out, he said.

“As more and more PSAPs have deployed it, the message has gotten out that they aren’t getting inundated,” said Fontes. “By and large the initial fears in terms of texting to 9-1-1 have not materialized.”

Education campaigns, such as one Vermont initiated in 2013, have helped consumers understand to call when they can and text when they can’t, he said. While text to 9-1-1 has always been championed by and for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, anecdotal evidence continues to show that suicidal people frequently use the service, and many success stories to date involve PSAPs and first responders being able to intervene in suicide attempts. An emerging use case shows that texting can be useful or necessary in rural and remote areas that don't have enough bandwidth to support a voice call but can support a text session, as well as during large-scale incidents where voice calls may be blocked but texts are more likely to get through.

TCS encourages PSAPs to talk to other PSAPs that have deployed the service to help allay some concerns, said Hellebust. Based on TCS system data, the company estimates about 1,000 texts are sent to 9-1-1 each day, or about 400,000 annually, which averages out to only about one text per day per PSAP.

Sherri Powell, telecommunications specialist with consulting firm L.R. Kimball, said many PSAPs fear a similar situation to when they first introduced wireless to PSAPs and call volumes increased exponentially.

“I don’t blame PSAPs for being afraid,” said Powell. “Wireless really did explode on them, and people in the industry didn’t think it would be such an explosion.”

But emergency texts will be replacement calls rather than additional calls, said Powell. She tries to calm PSAP fears by explaining that wireless technology added a huge number of devices that could call 9-1-1, while texts will be an alternative to voice calling.

“We aren’t adding a bunch of new devices; we are replacing one for one,” said Powell. “Instead of calling, they may text. There may be 20 to 30 texts, yes, but they will just replace wireless calls and the number of wireless calls will go down.”

A final hurdle PSAPs face is determining how they want to deploy text to 9-1-1 and what impact that deployment will have on operations. Three methods for receiving texts currently exist: TTY (a telecommunications device for the deaf), Web-based systems and solutions integrated with next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) deployments. PSAPs must decide which delivery method they prefer and if their chosen method will require new equipment or call-taker training.

Hellebust said about 40 percent of PSAPs TCS has worked with chose Web-based solutions, 40 percent chose the company’s NG 9-1-1 solution and 20 percent opted for a TTY solution.

PSAPs opting for a Web-based solution have to find a highly reliable Internet service provider that can provide round-the-clock support, said Powell. PSAPs also have to consider whether they need to add a monitor at one or more stations, or if they need to upgrade their CAD systems to integrate text delivery, all of which can add costs.

To alleviate some of the cost concerns, California has negotiated statewide pricing structures from text control center (TCC) providers, and Powell said other regions and states are being encouraged to create similar arrangements to leverage their buying power. The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), which represents 38 rural and regional carriers, has also negotiated group pricing for its members with TCC provider Intrado, which allows them to access special rates for products, said Brad Blanken, vice president of industry development at the association.

Tier-Two Progress
Most of the progress to date on text-to-9-1-1 deployment has been with the nation’s four nationwide carriers, but there has been some activity among second-tier carriers recently.

While they don’t have the nationwide footprint of the largest providers, many second-tier carriers aren’t small, and they have the resources to deploy text to 9-1-1 without many problems, said Powell. She said tier-two carriers are more likely to need the full six months to comply with requests in the short term, and some smaller carriers may need to file for extensions.

The smaller the carrier, the more likely they are to contend with money and manpower constraints that could affect their ability to deploy text to 9-1-1 for PSAPs, said Blanken.

Blanken said a potential challenge for smaller operators with text to 9-1-1 is that their customers disproportionately roam compared with customers of carriers with nationwide footprints. That could create some confusion and need for education to teach customers that text to 9-1-1 might work in some places but not in others depending on whether they are on their home network or roaming.

“It’s a wrinkle,” said Blanken. “It’s not a technical hurdle or a show stopper but it adds an additional level of complexity that a nationwide operator doesn’t have.

“The most critical piece that we want to make sure doesn’t happen for small operators is that text to 9-1-1 becomes a competitive differentiator.”

Blanken said all carriers should focus on text to 9-1-1 as a lifesaving tool and not a business advantage.

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