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Addressing Misunderstandings About Text-to-9-1-1: An Interview with NENA's Barbara Jaeger

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-01-29
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The public’s desire to contact 9-1-1 by the latest of communications technologies – SMS texting, in this case – has led to new technologies that allow callers to report crimes via text message to 9-1-1 PSAPs, and, in the not too distant future, attach photos and even video of incident scenes.  Maybe even suspect images and video that capture the crime in progress.  Of course, the availability of this technology to the consumer means that the 9-1-1 Centers are going to have to find a way to receive this new form of texted 9-1-1 call, which presents challenges in operations, technology, equipment, and the dreaded “F” word: funding.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA, aka the 9-1-1 Association), has been at the forefront of representing both the 9-1-1 agencies’ interests and that of the vendors helping to make this technology work for them.  9-1-1 magazine recently interviewed Barbara Jaeger, ENP, President of the NENA Executive Board, about this important issue:

9-1-1 Magazine: What do you feel are the major challenges to making text-to-9-1-1 work operationally within the nation’s 9-1-1 Centers?

Barbara Jaeger, NENA: At this time, the major challenge for PSAPs is selecting the text-to-9-1-1 platform that works best in their individual centers. Right now, there are already more than a dozen text messaging for emergency assistance platforms in limited use. PSAPs and 9-1-1 authorities should be prepared to do plenty of research so that they can select the option that best fits their needs. Doing the homework beforehand and soliciting input from PSAP staff at all levels will undoubtedly make the deployment and operations of the selected text-to-9-1-1 service much easier for all parties, especially the call takers.

9-1-1 Magazine: What kind of partnership is needed between the technology vendors, wireless carriers, PSAPs, the FCC, and organizations such as NENA to make text-to-9-1-1 a reality? How can users navigate this web of organizations to understand how to make it work in their 9-1-1 Centers?

Barbara Jaeger, NENA: I think the recent text-to-9-1-1 agreement brokered by NENA, agreed to by the “big 4” wireless carriers and signed onto by APCO, is a great example of the collaboration necessary to make text-to-9-1-1, or any major advancement in public safety technology, a success. Stakeholders from industry, government, public safety, and consumer advocacy organizations all have a role to play in creating the technical standards, operational best practices, and educational resources necessary for timely, well-organized text-to-9-1-1 implementation and operations. This stakeholder partnership is already well underway through the Emergency Accessibility Advisory Committee (EAAC) groups working in conjunction with the FCC.

NENA will continue to lead on this vital issue, bringing together the right groups to facilitate dependable text-to-9-1-1 solutions for PSAPs today and into the next generation of 9-1-1 service.

It is also worth noting that every text-to-9-1-1 implementation will be a partnership between the individual PSAP and the wireless carriers because the recent text-to-9-1-1 agreement stipulates that each PSAP will have the opportunity to select how carriers provision text-to-9-1-1 for the center and when to implement.

9-1-1 Magazine: What do you see as some of the misunderstandings about text-to-9-1-1 held by the public and by the PSAP managers, and how would you answer them?

Barbara Jaeger, NENA: I believe the biggest misconception about text-to-9-1-1 revolves around the volume of text-based 9-1-1 requests for service. Many fear a worst-case scenario, where PSAPs are overwhelmed by an unmanageable amount of text messages. However, in areas with text-to-9-1-1 service currently deployed, text messages account for such a small percentage of overall call volume that it is almost insignificant.

While nationwide public awareness of the availability of text-to-9-1-1 will almost undoubtedly increase the volume of text requests for service, I feel that an education campaign advising the public that they should contact 9-1-1 via voice communications whenever possible will be effective and will safeguard PSAPs from the misuse or overuse of text-to-9-1-1.

9-1-1 Magazine: We’ve heard about intermediary call centers who receive the text message and relay it verbally to 9-1-1 Centers (such as recently announced by Intrado as an interim solution), and we’ve heard of some PSAPs such as Black Hawk County, Iowa, which has already directly received text messages from their public. What are some of the different options to get a text message into a 9-1-1 PSAP, and what options will PSAP managers have?

Barbara Jaeger, NENA: Numerous proposed and some already operational text solutions have been produced over the last two years from various vendors and applications developers. Some are direct-delivery to the PSAP, but these usually use a proprietary software approach and are not actually routed though the in-place E9-1-1 system. There are web server solutions as well, that the PSAP connects to over the Internet to access text messages (such as the solution being trialed in Tennessee). Some solutions require smartphone apps, while some work using standard cell phones. A national interim solution is being prepared by carriers, targeted for late 2013 and 2014 deployment, to operate until the more complete, permanent solution using new carrier methods and NG9-1-1 is ready.

9-1-1 Magazine: In addition to the technological component, which we’ve heard much about recently as vendors announce products and services to make this work, what do you feel will be the operational impact on the telecommunicators and dispatchers who will be responsible for answering this new form of 9-1-1 call receipt?

Barbara Jaeger, NENA: The operational impacts of text-to-9-1-1 are an important consideration.  For one thing, PSAPs will need to consider the increased time it may take to handle text messages.  Also, it is desirable to have all requests for assistance, be they voice, text, or other, presented to the telecommunicator utilizing a consistent interface, so that the call taker can handle the request efficiently and not be confused when switching between platforms.  Regarding the question of who will answer these text messages, I believe that in most cases it will be an expanded job function of current 9-1-1 center employees. Certainly, the creation of operational best practices and training resources for 9-1-1 center personnel will be critical and NENA is already working to develop these materials.

9-1-1 Magazine: What kind of time frame are we looking at to comply with movement toward real-time text-to-9-1-1 services nationwide?

Barbara Jaeger, NENA: Real-time text capability is part of a larger, standardized, long-term solution called Multi-Media Emergency Service (MMES). Because handling non-voice communications requires IP networks and software, the availability of MMES for text (and video) depends on carriers using IP networks (which most do by now) and IMS, which stands for IP Multimedia Subystem, the underlying network structures to support MMES. IMS will be implemented nationally over the next two to three years. Multi-Media Emergency Services in the originating carrier environment can supply real-time text-to-9-1-1 service, but NG9-1-1 is needed to route, manage, and carry the text messages to and from the PSAPs. The necessary combination of MMES and NG9-1-1 will be available nationally only as fast as both MMES and NG9-1-1 are rolled out. This leaves us with a time gap that could be eight to ten years before full, seamless real-time text to 9-1-1 is available across states and the nation unless NG9-1-1 is prioritized and adequately funded.

9-1-1 Magazine: Finally, what recommendations would NENA encourage PSAP managers and emergency services administrators to consider in order to be ready for this new level of 9-1-1 service?

Barbara Jaeger, NENA: One bit of advice would simply be to embrace this technology and do what you can to make it work. I understand that there are trepidations – there always are with any new solution entering the 9-1-1 and public safety marketplace. Simply put, text messaging is how people communicate today, especially members of the hearing and speech disabilities community who have had to wait for too long to receive the truly equal access to emergency services that text-to-9-1-1 will provide. We in public safety are constantly striving to meet the needs of the public and serve them as best we can, and right now that means implementing text-to-9-1-1 solutions.



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