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Little By Little, 911 Centers Receive Emergency Texts


When an emergency or disaster happens, people reach for the phone to call 911. And this morning, we're looking at a different way to access that number, via text message. It's part of our NPR Cities Project, looking at cities and technology.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If other cities can do it, we can do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is an old city but we are on the latest technologies.

MONTAGNE: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED has looked at how police departments are responding to a new challenge: cell phones leading to a deluge of 911 calls. Listen to that story at npr.org/nprcities. Then there's this challenge: texting. More and more Americans are texting 911.

TREY FORGETY: One of the early call centers in the northeast that enabled text messaging received, not that long ago, a one-word text message that simply said: suicide.

MONTAGNE: Trey Forgety, with the National Emergency Number Association, says at most 911 call centers that single word would have gone unread. But centers that do monitor text messages are seeing results. In this case, operators were able to locate the sender and saved a life. Forgety joined us in our studio in Washington to talk about how the 911 system is adapting to the times. Thank you for being here.

FORGETY: It's my pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with of the 6,000-plus 911 call centers in the U.S. Less than 1 percent have implemented this. Why so few places? I mean, text messaging has been around for a long time. What's the hold up?

FORGETY: Text messaging itself has been around for a long time, Renee, but the 911 systems in this country are still based on last century telephone-centric technology. Most carrier networks don't actually support text to 911 yet and most call centers certainly don't have the technology to accept the texts, even if the carrier networks could.

MONTAGNE: But we're getting more, right?

FORGETY: Yes. There's a nationwide push underway right now to upgrade call centers and networks to accept text messages. Earlier this year, our association entered an agreement with the nation's four largest wireless carriers to get text to 911 support in the networks, not necessarily the call centers, but at least in the networks by late next year.

MONTAGNE: How much will it cost to implement all of this?

FORGETY: Well, we don't have solid numbers on what it will cost. In some places it's going to be a fairly simple upgrade where it's just a matter of retraining call takers to handle specific new types of protocols and procedures. In other places, it may mean new hardware and software. And so in those places, it's going to cost a bit more.

MONTAGNE: But how far from when we will have text to 911 universally available, do you think?

FORGETY: I think it's probably several years away. In the interim, we've got sort of a two-phased approach. By early next year, all carriers and interconnected text messaging service providers - so applications that allow you to text phone numbers from a Smartphone - will have to provide what's called a bounce-back message.

And this lets people know if they're in a place where either the carrier network or the call center doesn't support 911, the user will receive a message back that says text to 911 is unavailable, please make a voice call. Then, later on, once the carrier network support is out there, we expect to see call centers moving, you know, within a few years to have this technology enabled.

MONTAGNE: So that's basically the idea. It should work as well, hopefully, as 911 calls.

FORGETY: Well, there's always going to be a preference for a voice 911 call. Somewhat like radio, voice allows us to hear details that you can't get through a text message. Voice is also the best way for us to get location information and to confirm that with a caller. So the message for the public really is: call if you can, text only if you can't.

MONTAGNE: Well, actually, now that you mention that, really, sometimes when people are in trouble, it's one thing to hit 911 and talk. It's another thing to actually create a text message. That seems like it would take more work.

FORGETY: In some cases, it can. Like I said, it's usually going to be the best policy to call if you can and text only if you can't. There are circumstances, though, were texting is preferable, particularly when someone is in a situation where they can't be heard talking - domestic violence, kidnapping.

We recently say the movie "The Call" with Halle Berry where you had someone in a trunk. In those cases, texting can be an absolute lifesaver.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

FORGETY: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Trey Forgety is director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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