Some local agencies working to provide text-to-911 service

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by Diana Zoga / News 4

KMOV.com

Posted on May 15, 2014 at 9:13 PM

Updated Thursday, May 15 at 10:11 PM

(KMOV.com) - Four wireless carriers announced on Thursday they could now provide text-to-911 service.  

AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and Sprint say they have enabled the service on their ends.  But whether you will be able to text 911 depends on the dispatch center and whether it puts upgrades in place that will allow you to tap out a message, instead of making a voice call.

Each public safety answering point (or PSAP) would implement the service, individually.  When and if that will happen depends on each dispatching agency.

The FCC lists the jurisdictions that accept text messages to 911 here.

 So far, no local agencies are using text to 911 service, but some say they are close.

St. Clair County is currently working to select a vendor to upgrade its system from the current "Enhanced 911, Phase 2" system to what's known as "Next Generation 911" - which would allow dispatchers to receive texts, photos, and videos from callers.

"If they were at a location at a bank and there was an armed robbery or something of that nature... if they could send a video or picture of the car or of the suspects, that would be something they could put out," said Bill Gamblin - director of the St. Clair County Emergency Telephone System Board.

Gamblin says the county hasn't put out bids for a new system yet, but estimates it will cost at least $3.2 million and could be in place by the end of the year.  The money, says Gamblin, comes from 911 usage fees on phone bills.

St. Louis County is currently in the process of evaluating bids for a similar upgrade and also hopes to offer text-to-911 by the end of 2014.

St. Louis City plans to ask voters to approve a general obligation bond this fall.  The proposal would include funds to pay for Next Generation 911 upgrades.

Jefferson County currently has a Next Gen compliant system, but will still need to find software add-ons to allow the network to capture text messages.

"The next steps really are the public safety providers themselves that are running the 911 centers," said John Sondag - AT&T Missouri President.

Sondag said he expects larger PSAPs to make changes first, while smaller PSAPs may still have to come up with the funding.

"The technology is there.  I would think that we would migrate to that fairly quickly," said Sondag.

Even as text to 911 becomes more widespread, dispatchers say voice calls will still be the preferred way to get emergency help because text messages don't always pass through the network as quickly as a voice call. 

Dispatchers may still want to talk to a caller and ask questions while also giving critical instructions - especially in a medical emergency.

Text-to-911 is expected to be useful when the caller feels it is unsafe to make a voice call.  Many have pointed to stories of students who texted 911 for help during the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, but those texts never reached a dispatcher.  

For those with hearing or speech difficulties, text may offer a more direct link to a dispatcher over relay service. 

A Verizon Wireless spokesperson explained, in an e-mail to News4, that emergency texts will still have the same 160-character limits as a regular text message and that providing the location and a description of the emergency in the first text is imperative.  

For now, if a St. Louis-area caller tries to text 911, an error message will be sent back to the customer.  The "bounce back" message varies per provider, but will explain that texting is not yet possible.  

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