Take out your phone and try to put a text through to 911. Unless you’re in Iowa or a single city in North Carolina, it won’t go anywhere.  

My 911 message bounced back with the reply “There is no text service to 911 available at this time. Please make a voice call to 911.” 

At a time when speedy LTE networks are blanketing the country, smartphones have become ubiquitous and an entire generation seems to prefer texting over voice calls, the nation’s 911 system still doesn’t accept text messages, with the exception of a few forward-looking municipalities. 

To say it’s outdated is an understatement. 

The problem is twofold: The public safety answering points that receive 911 calls can’t handle SMS messages, and even if they did, wireless operators don’t have the ability to route the SMS messages to 911 services vendors that aggregate and route the texts to the right facility.  

James Soukup, emergency communications director for the city and county of Durham, N.C., says he’s seen little willingness from operators to support SMS-to-911 services – with the exception of Verizon Wireless. The city of Durham and Verizon are partners in a trial of the technology set to run through the end of April. 

"Some of them have just flat out said they're not going to do it," he says. 

T-Mobile USA and Sprint did not reply to questions about Soukup’s comment.  

AT&T also did not respond directly to Soukup’s comments, but a spokeswoman said the company is “actively researching near and long-term solutions to make reliable delivery of multimedia services, including text messages, photos and videos, available to our subscribers and to first responders.” 

The three operators have urged the FCC in regulatory filings to steer clear of short-lived interim support measures for SMS-to-911 and burdensome regulatory mandates for long-term next-generation 911 services. 

The FCC is still weighing whether to adopt regulations that would force operators to support SMS-to-911 ahead of a future transition to an IP-based system.  

Meanwhile, the recession has forced cities to tighten budgets, making investment in new 911 technologies a hard sell – though recent legislation providing funding for the deployment of a national, interoperable LTE network for first responders could provide the needed cash for public safety answering point (PSAP) upgrades. 

As it stands now, SMS-to-911 is a long way from becoming widespread as investment in the technology remains stymied by reticence on the part of operators, lack of regulations and the still-fragile state of the economy. 

“Text-to-911 is a burr in my saddle,” says Dami Hummel, vice president and general manager of the mobility business division at Intrado, a vendor of equipment and services for 911. “This is a technology that should be deployed today.” 

Intrado specializes in emergency communications, including gear that wireless operators can use to support text-to-911 services. Its equipment was used in the first SMS-enabled 911 call center in Black Hawk County, Iowa, through a 2009 partnership with T-Mobile subsidiary i wireless, and it also was used in the more recent Durham trial with Verizon.  

The company has been a major proponent of next-generation 911 systems that can support text, video and data communications to first responders.  Hummel says that regardless of whether companies choose to use its equipment for next-gen 911, Intrado views the SMS capability as absolutely essential to the safety of the general public. 

Lack of carrier support and a dearth of compatible PSAPs will continue to hobble text-to-911 until support for the technology becomes the norm, not the exception. 

The limitations are highlighted by the first iteration of i wireless’ deployment in Iowa. When it first launched in 2009, only i wireless subscribers in the call center's area could use the service, and because SMS messages lack location information, users’ texts were greeted by an automated reply asking them to enter their city or zip code. Callers had to be located in Black Hawk County to have their texts routed through to the SMS-capable call center. Otherwise, they received a text telling them to call 911. 

Without nationwide support for the technology, deployments of SMS-to-911 will all have similar limitations in the near-term.  

i wireless has since expanded the service and its subscribers can now send text messages to 911 from anywhere in Iowa. It remains the only operator in the state to offer SMS-to-911.

Common thinking has been that the public will quickly adopt text-to-911 once it becomes available. But the Durham trial has called that assumption into question; the city has so far only received one SMS during the trial, which began in August. 

“We’re definitely dispelling some of the myths out there – that if you turn this up, people will text all the time,” Soukup said. 

The lone text message wasn’t even sent by a caller who couldn’t have otherwise placed a voice call: the single SMS alerted Durham 911 responders to an alarm going on off at a construction site, a situation that could have just as easily been handled by a voice call, Soukup said. The construction site alarm turned out to be weather-related. 

Even with the limited uptake, Soukup says the city still wants to have the technology in place on a permanent basis.  

“If all 911 centers can have it, it may make the difference for that unique situation,” he says.

SMS could be a life-saving option in emergency situations where voice calls are out of the question, such as when a cellular signal is too weak to support voice, or where the sound of someone speaking could attract the attention of a potential assailant, a situation that arose during the Virginia Tech shootings. 

But even with SMS-to-911 in place, residents of areas with the capability are being asked to contact 911 by text only when voice calls are not an option. Texting back and forth is more time-consuming than voice calls, short message systems lack the ability to pinpoint a user’s location and the transmission of SMS messages can be delayed. When it comes to emergencies, voice remains the preferred method of calling for help. 

The Devil is In the Details

Many 911 systems are so outdated they’re not worth upgrading with short-term solutions - they would be better served by a wholesale upgrade to the IP-based next-gen technology proposed by the FCC.  

The agency has put forward proposals for next-gen 911 services, but has yet to make its official regulations public.  

Some cities have rolled out solutions that use standard 10-digit phone numbers to route SMS messages to PSAPs, with the number varying by jurisdiction. The use of a different emergency number has sparked concern that the ad-hoc technology could confuse callers accustomed to using the three-digit 911 during emergencies. 

Meanwhile, the fundamental incompatibilities between SMS and existing 911 systems make it difficult to move forward without a standardized approach, which the FCC is still working on.  

SMS was simply not designed to work with 911, as pointed out by T-Mobile in a filing late last year with the FCC.  

The operator provided a long list of SMS’ shortcomings, stating that text messages are “one-way rather than session-based,” making it difficult to route messages between the caller and the same operator. Furthermore, short message systems do “not recognize three digit dialing patterns; has no guaranteed delivery and gives no indication to the sender when a message has not been completed; has no way to ensure that messages arrive in proper sequence; is at odds with 911 voice calling by roaming networks; does not support 911 location technologies because of the limited transmission time; and, has significant security vulnerabilities that could result in PSAPs being deluged with fraudulent or abusive 911 texts.” 

Given the formidable technical obstacles, it’s no surprise then that mandatory support for the technology has received pushback from the wireless industry.  

CTIA challenged the FCC's legal authority to force wireless operators to comply with regulations about SMS messaging to 911 in comments filed last month, pushing instead for a voluntary process. The trade association also questioned the wisdom of mandating the deployment of interim technologies that would support SMS.  

The wireless industry doesn’t have a happy history with the FCC’s 911 regulations. Operators struggled to meet FCC location accuracy requirement deadlines for 911 calls placed from cell phones, and some filed suit over the issue.  

The industry wants the FCC to take a different tack to next-gen 911 than it did with E911.  

Because E911 was rolled out on a per-facility basis, "there were numerous areas where wireless providers expended time and resources deploying E911 even though the local public safety answering point was not capable of using these services," CTIA said in comments filed with the FCC last month.  

The same could happen for next-gen 911 unless the FCC makes PSAPs upgrade their systems on a region-wide basis, the trade association said. 

The issue has prompted the wireless industry to call on the FCC to upgrade regional public safety infrastructure before requiring mobile operators to support the technology. 

The FCC wants citizens to be able to send text, video and data to 911 call centers. It wants to move PSAPs to an IP-based system that that will allow the facilities to transfer calls to other centers when they’re overwhelmed by calls, and support multimedia communications from callers.

It’s a goal that’s shared by wireless operators and municipalities – but how they get there is still a matter for debate.