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Text-to-911 debuts in Durham

August 3, 2011 marked a huge technological leap forward for Durham, NC through the availability of the new "text-to-911" program. Durham is only the second location in the US to offer this service, which was made possible as a pilot program through the City's Next Generation 911 (NG911) provider Intrado and Verizon Wireless, currently the only mobile provider to offer 911 texting capabilities. Citizens and visitors to Durham will have the ability to text 911 in an emergency from now until the trial period ends on January 31, 2012. Durham switched to the NG911 network at a cost of $103,500 in 2009. The pilot project is available free of charge, though citizens will still have to pay the standard texting rate of $.20 or have the messages deducted from their overall allowance.

The system was developed in an attempt to keep up with today's constantly changing technological environment where people, particularly younger generations, often communicate solely through text messages rather than voice-based conversations. Emergency personnel caution that the same rules apply to texting 911 as do to calling and this service should only be used for those requiring an immediate response. Dispatchers have also cautioned that the best and most efficient way to contact 911 should always be through a phone call whenever possible. Texting has been designed specifically to benefit those who are hearing impaired or those in a situation where making noise further endangers them, such as someone hiding in a closet during a break-in who doesn't want the burglar to know they are there.

While the benefits are clear, there are drawbacks as well and texting should not be viewed as a panacea. Texting is likely to be slower than a phone call as it will take time for the text to come through to the dispatch center, after which the dispatcher will have to type a response and wait for it to be sent through to the sender. Text messages to 911 are also still limited to the same 160 characters as other texts which can prolong the waiting period as multiple messages may be needed to establish a location or the specific threat, both of which should be included in the first message sent if possible. As there is no automatic reply sent by a dispatcher, those sending text messages have no way of knowing whether they have successfully gone through and been received by a dispatcher until one responds. While many of these problems may be corrected as time goes on and texting moves out of the pilot stage and becomes more widely used, users should still keep the limitations in mind.

Analyst's Take:

As more and more counties and cities switch to Next Generation 911 systems, the prevalence of texting capabilities is likely to increase exponentially. Network service providers such as T-mobile and AT&T need to work to develop the capability quickly to catch up with Verizon. All of the providers should ensure that not only can texts be sent to a 911 number but also pictures and videos. At present, no solution exists which allows citizens to send videos and MMS messages to 911, but that is almost certainly the next step. Network developers should be focusing on these competencies as their next system add-on. Cell phone makers also need to ensure that new phones have the ability to recognize 911 when it is typed into the "to" box. Motorola's original Droid did not have this capability; however, the problem has been rectified through users downloading a simple application. Other phone manufactures should follow suit and ensure that they develop software or an application to correct the problem on slightly older phones if necessary.

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