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Rescuing 911 

Wednesday, Jul 13 2016
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During two recent mass shootings in the U.S., some people caught up in the mayhem took to their cellphones to reach out for help — not through calls but instead through text messages. They did not do this out of some aversion to actually speaking over the phone. Naturally, these people were terrified, placed in a completely foreign situation in which their first instinct was to not make any noise, not draw any attention to their whereabouts.

For some, it worked and they survived. Others were not so lucky, ending up among the dead.

Less than two weeks after 14 people were killed and 22 more injured at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, a text-to-911 service was implemented in San Bernardino County. In Orlando, where a lone gunman killed 49 people at a nightclub June 12, there is no option to text 911, but the massacre has put a new immediacy on the topic nationwide.

Only about 650 of the country's 6,000 emergency dispatch centers are equipped to handle text-to-911, according to a recent Associated Press report, and more than 150 plan to add the feature this year. Here in San Francisco, residents can expect to have the option by mid-2017, the Department of Emergency Management, which operates the city's dispatch center, told SF Weekly.

"Text-to-911 is certainly in San Francisco's future," says Francis Zamora, a spokesperson for the department.

Not to be confused with the Police Department's text-a-tip option, in which people can send information about crimes or suspects anonymously through text messaging, text-to-911 is for emergency services only.

As for San Francisco, Zamora says "there are two ways to implement this service and we are moving forward on both fronts."

The current approach, according to Zamora, is more of a temporary work-around until a brand-new 911 system is implemented by the federal government — one that will be more sophisticated and in tune with today's technology. It's called Next Generation 911, and it uses an internet protocol-based system that directs digital information and communication from the public to emergency responders through the 911 network.

In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission developed a roadmap of sorts for how to bring Next Generation 911 to the U.S. and Canada. However, it did not offer a timeline, and none has been created since. The plan requires buy-in from each state, major technology upgrades, and increased funding for new staff at the local level. As with most government efforts, the public can expect a slow process.

The good news is, Zamora says, the FCC created a work-around. All wireless carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, et al. — are required to deliver emergency text messages to dispatch centers upon request, and that's what's happening in San Francisco.

During the next two fiscal years, the Department of Emergency Management said it will hold six new academy classes to train dispatchers, with the goal of hiring 80 new positions. "We want to ensure we have enough dispatchers in call-taking positions before dispatchers are assigned to 'text-taking' positions," Zamora says.

At the same time, the department is working toward Next Generation 911 with things like its new computer-aided dispatch system, updated two years ago, and an upgraded 911 telephone network.

These steps are certainly important, as texting can be preferable in many types of emergency situations, not just mass shootings. One example often cited by jurisdictions where the text option exists is in cases of domestic violence, when a phone call could alert the abuser to the victim's intentions, potentially making matters worse. Or in burglaries, a photo could be useful in apprehending a suspect. And for people with hearing and speaking impairments, texting to 911 is a huge upgrade from from teletypewriters, or TTYs, which require extra equipment to use and can be cumbersome, especially in an emergency situation.

But the FCC work-around comes with major flaws.

For instance, Next Generation 911 will prioritize emergency texts over chit-chat types of messages. Remember those times when you texted someone something important and received no response? You thought they ignored you; they say they never received the message. Sadly, this could happen under the work-around, as emergency texts are not prioritized over everyday texts.

And the work-around only accepts SMS messages, which sometimes come with extra costs in thrifty wireless plans. So if you were to use iMessage on your iPhone, for example, the emergency dispatch center would not receive the text.

Despite these challenges, text-to-911 is a major step forward, even though every municipality — including San Francisco — that has or will implement it is adamant about making calls over sending texts: "Call if you can, text if you can't."

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Max DeNike

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