Emergency call center operator

TechFest aims to improve text-to-911 services

A Text-to-911 Translation TechFest was held last month to improve technologies supporting public safety communications and response, particularly for people with limited English proficiency. Hosted by Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute and Google, the event addressed the increasing use of texts to 911 that request help from public safety-fire, emergency medical services or law enforcement.

The TechFest, which was held on the Google campus in Kirkland, Wash., highlighted translation issues. Public safety officials currently depend on machine translation for handling non-English text to 911 and were looking to understand how machine-translation software can help. Other issues included the use of colloquial terminology and text shorthand.

In 2015, less than 3% of the nation’s 6,000 public safety answering points had implemented text-to-911. Since then, the number of PSAPs using the platform has increased to 30% percent; federal, state, and local laws now require call centers to ensure that the platform is available to the almost 28 million people across the United States who have limited English proficiency. 

Overall, the TechFest revealed the need for further research and development to ensure 911 calls are answered efficiently and first responders are provided the correct information to respond.

Presently, DHS S&T and IJIS are researching best practices as well as interviewing experts in emergency communication, next generation 911 technology and public safety to develop standards that will be implemented nationally. In late summer, pilot programs with Virginia's Arlington and Prince William counties will test the protocols and determine estimated costs of nationwide implementation.

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