First text-to-911 gateway goes live in Iowa

Black Hawk County call center to accept 911 text messages

A national text-to-911 gateway goes live today in Iowa, making the county of Black Hawk the first in the nation to accept text messages into its emergency call center.

The system will be available only to subscribers of specific carrier services in Black Hawk County, Iowa (the carriers supporting the service have not yet been identified). Although the gateway, built by Intrado Inc., is built as a national system to route calls to any Public Service Answering Point (PSAP), there is no schedule yet for rolling the service out nationally.

“We are enabling the technology,” said Intrado’s senior technical officer John Snapp.

Most voice calls to 911 provide PSAP operators with information about the location of the caller, but the text system being unveiled today can provide only limited information about the location the text message is coming from. Operators will have to query the texter for specific information needed to respond to an emergency. Technology is being developed to make more information available to operators automatically.

The Federal Communications Commission requires voice carriers, including traditional wireline, cell phones and voice over IP services (VOIP), to provide Enhanced 911 services. E911 not only routes the call to the proper PSAP depending on the location of the caller, but automatically provides information on the caller’s location to operators so that help can be dispatched even if a caller is unable to say where he or she is. This is a relatively straightforward process for wireline phones that operate from a fixed location. But the growth of mobile wireless phones and new transport schemes such as VOIP have created a challenge in providing the needed information.

E911 capability for cell phones, which could make up half of all emergency phones calls, is being phased in. Phase 0 was the ability to route a call to any PSAP, whether it was the proper one or not. Phase 1, where most carriers and PSAPs are today, is the ability route the call to the proper PSAP and provide information about the cell site and sector the call originates from. Phase 2, which is where the service now is transitioning, provides the specific location in latitude and longitude that can be displayed on a map for emergency dispatchers. Most carriers now provide this capability in their systems, but many PSAPs have yet to acquire the equipment required to use it.

Intrado provides services and systems to route 911 calls for wireless and wireline providers and deliver appropriate location data to PSAPs. It also has a network for transporting VOIP calls to PSAPs.

“There is no requirement for carriers to provide 911 for text,” Snapp said. But the industry has been talking about it for some time as the service becomes more popular. The challenge has been determining where the text message is coming from. “The carriers said you couldn’t do it,” Snapp said.

Text has been created as a mobile-to-mobile service. Mobile voice calls are made through a geographically locatable switch, which has a trunk to a PSAP. But text messages are routed through national message centers.

“The system doesn’t know where the text message is from,” Snapp said. “It could be sent from anywhere in the country. We’re really almost starting from scratch again” in providing 911 services.

Intrado built a pair of national 911 text gateways, in Colorado and in Florida for geographical redundancy, to receive the messages. The system queries the network to get the location of the switch where the message originated and an automated query asks the texter for the city he is located in. It uses that information to pass the message to the proper PSAP. The PSAP operator receiving the text can then ask the texter for a more specific location.

Compared with the requirements for cell phones, Snapp describes the current text scheme as at phase 0.5. He said technology now is being tested that would move the service to phase 1 by providing the location of the originating cell. Achieving phase 2 capability by providing specific user location would require carriers and equipment providers to incorporate new technology in their systems.

Black Hawk County was chosen as the first live site for 911 texting because it had the right combination of installed call-handling equipment to integrate with it and coverage by participating carriers.

“Iowa in general is a very forward-looking state for 911,” Snapp said.

“The state of Iowa has a long history of pioneering advancements in 911 technology as a way to enhance the safety of all of our citizens,” David Mill, administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division, said in announcing the service.

Both Snapp and Iowa officials said the system is not intended for a replacement for 911 voice calls but as an alternative when voice calls are not possible or appropriate, such as for the speech or hearing impaired or in situations in which the caller is afraid to speak.

“We feel that voice is still the best way to contact 911,” Snapp said. “It is today, and it will be for the foreseeable future.”

A generation also is growing up for which mobile texting is more common than voice calls. Officials do not recommend that they use texting for 911, but would like to have the service available if is used.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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