The Texting Troubles of 911

By Bourquard, Jo Anne | State Legislatures, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Texting Troubles of 911


Bourquard, Jo Anne, State Legislatures


Americans have come to rely on 911 for emergencies, but the system is showing its age. Decades old and outdated, very few 911 call centers can receive text messages, pictures or videos all standard communications in today's world.

Created in a world of landline phones 40 years ago, the system no longer supports the technology of its users. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than one-quarter of Americans have only wireless telephones (no landline service), while a recent Pew Internet survey found that at least 83 percent of American adults now own cell phones. Usage of wireless devices continues to grow. CTIA-The Wireless Association reports that the number of wireless connections increased more than 20 million from December 2010 to December 2011.

And texting is topping talking. Increasingly the communication of choice, especially for younger users, the Pew survey found cell phone users between 18 and 24 years old exchange an average of 109.5 messages a day. It also found that 73 percent of adult cell phone users send and receive text messages, and nearly a third of all texters actually prefer texting over talking. Yet only 0.01 percent of all public safety answering points (PSAPs) can accept text messages.

Being able to text 911 for help would obviously benefit a public increasingly connected to their phones. But it could also benefit emergency responders--fire fighters, police officers and dispatchers who could respond to real-time information, such as photos, audio or videos of a fire, car crash, natural disaster or crime in progress.

Updating the system's technology for wireless and Internet-based communications is critical to improving safety, but sure to be complicated and costly. …

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