Recently there was an evening radio call between a local police dispatching center and police about a car coming into Monett at a high rate of speed. A passenger in the car, the girlfriend of the driver, had sent a text message asking for help.
The message was relayed to police, though how was not known. Local dispatchers at the present time do not have the ability to receive text messages. The responding officer wanted to contact the passenger, but the situation developed faster than the trace could be tracked.
Stations handling 911 calls, known as public safety answering points (PSAP), generally lack the technology to receive text messages. This includes both the Monett dispatching center and the Barry County 911 center in Cassville.
"It is mostly up to the individual cell phone companies to deliver the information in a form that we could receive it," said Pat Leighter, 911 director for Barry County.
How to bring text messages in 911 centers is now being pioneered in Iowa. According to the July issue of Urgent Communications magazine, staff running the consolidated public safety communications center in Black Hawk County, in northern Iowa, used special software to upgrade their system. The local wireless company was then asked to route 911 texts directly into the national gateway provided by wireless phone provider Intrada. Positron Public Safety and RACOM Corporation also participated in the test.
The result was the first successful test in the nation bringing a text message into a PSAP.
In a statement released by the Black Hawk County 911 Service Board, Richard Ray, chairman of the National Emergency Number Association's (NENA) Accessibility Committee, said, "The successful testing of text messaging to 911 from a wireless telephone is a tremendous emergency services advancement for individuals who have sensory disabilities. I urge public safety agencies to accelerate the deployment of this technology and to encourage, support and celebrate efforts such as this."
"Increasingly text is becoming the way people communicate and public safety must be able to support 911 text messaging," said Chief Thomas Jennings, chairman of the Black Hawk "911" Board. "We are excited to have the opportunity to participate on a solution to enable 911 texting for the speech and hearing impaired community as well as set the stage for adoption by the larger texting population."
The upgrade used to establish a text conversation directly between the caller and the 911 operator utilizes Short Message Service (SMS). While not initially developed for use in public safety, SMS has gained widespread acceptance by the speech and hearing impaired community and is becoming an increasingly popular form of communication. CTIA, a wireless industry organization, estimates that the number of SMS text messages exceeded one trillion in 2008.
"Since Barry County is Phase 2, our equipment is capable of receiving [text messages like Black Hawk County]," Leighter said. "My guess is it won't be long."
Black Hawk County planned to make its expanded service receiving text messages available to the public this month.