Text-to-911 coming to Texas counties

The organization, which works with more than 40 public safety agencies and nearly 1,200 dispatchers, is upgrading its 911 system in the coming months

By Cindy George
Houston Chronicle

HARRIS, Texas — It's nighttime, you're at home alone and glass breaks downstairs. Realizing that a burglary is in progress, you hide and call 911 for help.

What if your whispers reveal your presence and place you in even more danger?

By the end of the year, millions of Houston-area residents are expected to have a silent alternative: the Text-to-911 option for emergencies.

Despite the popularity of messaging, the service hasn't been available in most of the nation and much of Texas for the most life-threatening situations: Pleas for fire, police or medical assistance.

In May, the nation's four major wireless carriers met a voluntary deadline to have their end of the Text-to-911 technology ready to deliver customers' messages topubl ic safety agencies that request the service, the Federal Communications Commission reported.

As a result, dozens of call centers nationwide and several in Texas can now receive texts from cellphones on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, which provides technical support for call centers in Harris and Fort Bend counties that serve more 5 million residents, will be ready in the coming months to do the same with at least one carrier.

That's important because most people in the Houston area call for emergency help by cellphone. In the first seven months of this year, 84 percent of emergency calls in Harris and Fort Bend counties originated from wireless lines, Greater Harris County 911 figures show.

In circumstances such as a child abduction, active shooter or domestic abuse, making a voice call could place a person in even greater danger. In times of cellular network congestion - such as disasters - phone calls don't always connect, so texting may offer a viable option.

Greater Harris County 911, the largest system in Texas, aims to "ensure that anyone at any time in any place using any device shall be able to reach emergency services," spokeswoman Sonya Clauson said.

The organization, which works with more than 40 public safety agencies - mostly at police and sheriff's departments - and nearly 1,200 dispatchers is "upgrading our 911 system at all of our call centers to be ready" for Text-to-911, she said.

Text not FCC-required

FCC rules specify that by year's end, all wireless carriers - not just the major companies - should be able to provide text messages to call centers that have requested the service. Those centers, however, are not required to exercise that option, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association - which is known as NENA.

Some states, such as Indiana and Vermont, are deploying the service statewide, he said. Others, such as California, leave the decision to individual public safety call centers or networks.

According to an FCC list dated Aug. 25, 18 states had at least one 911 center that could receive texts, though some were limited to one or two major carriers. The police departments in the Lone Star State which can receive texts are mostly in the Dallas Metroplex. There are none so far in the Houston area.

With the major carriers ready, the last hurdle is preparation at local 911 centers, said NENA government affairs director Trey Forgety.

Hearing-impaired residents in Harris and Fort Bend counties gained access to an interim texting solution in early 2013 - a registration-based short code to communicate via messaging with emergency dispatchers. Still, direct texting services will offer more streamlined access.

System 31 years old

Six years ago, Lois Johnson - a retired school librarian who is deaf and is now president of the Hearing Loss Association of America's Houston chapter - was painting in her Houston kitchen when she became ill. She was at home alone.

"I picked up my cellphone. Called 911. Said I was deaf and repeated my address a few times," the 66-year-old explained via text message. "They were there in 10 minutes. I was having a heart attack but did not know it at the time."

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network was created in 1983 when a seven-digit number was required to reach fire, police or paramedic services. Its three-digit system began operating in January 1986. Now, Harris and Fort Bend residents are poised to have the ability to alert 911 by text message.

But for now, if folks in Harris and Fort Bend text 911, they should receive a bounceback message. A test message to 911 from Houston on a cellphone with AT&T service received this response on Friday: "Make a voice call to 911 for help; text to 911 is not available."

Calling still best option

Though an advancement, texting should not be considered now or in the future as the primary method to reach emergency help, according to 911 specialists.

Voice calls will remain the "best and fastest ways to contact 911," Clauson said.

Even when the new service begins, it may not be available for all carriers at once and might not be offered in the Houston area beyond Harris and Fort Bend counties.

NENA's Forgety said that an emergency call always will trump a tapped-out message. He emphasized that sentiment with a slogan: "Call if you can. Text only if you can't."


©2014 the Houston Chronicle

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