Texting 911: King County will upgrade emergency system

As communications devices evolve, one area that’s having a hard time keeping up with the times is emergency services.

Developed from 1960s technology to primarily service landline-based phones, 911 services in King County will need a massive overhaul before they are ready to deal with text, picture and video messaging, said Marlys Davis, E-911 program manager for King County.

With 66 percent of 911 calls now coming from cell phones, Davis said the only direction for 911 is forward.

“Communication systems and equipment have advanced so far. If 911 is going to continue to be effective, we have to upgrade to be current with the communications devices out there,” she said. “People expect to be able to use those devices.”

Davis said King County’s 911 system has been steadily working on transferring to the new system, with work being done on the 911 database, mapping system and what she termed “back room equipment.”

“We’ve GPS located every address in the county,” she said, referring to a global positioning system. “We’ve already taken all of those steps to move toward the new system.”

Davis said one of the biggest factors for 911’s transition is the development of technical and operational standards. Through the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), 911 agencies all over the country have been figuring out the technical hardware standards for Next Generation 911.

Once that’s done, operational standards will be developed with the slew of new information presented to 911 dispatchers.

“Texting to 911 is going to have significant operational impacts,” Davis said. “Texting is a lot longer, slower process. Receivers may have to be holding multiple text conversations at the same time. Today, receivers only hear emergencies, but in the new system, with text, picture and video, that’s a lot more information for them to process and that will have a significant impact on them.”

Outside of 911’s own systems, Davis said the wireless carriers need to upgrade their networks to support the ability to text, picture and video message 911.

“Today’s wireless networks don’t support texting 911. There’s no guarantee of delivery, no priority, texts can be delivered out of order,” she said.

The wireless carriers are working with NEMA, and the Next Generation 911 system is projected to roll out in a few years, she said.

Davis said “workarounds” are being tried throughout the country to at least get text messaging 911 to become a reality a little sooner. There hasn’t been much success yet, she said.

“Citizens are anxious to have the ability to text 911 in place. If there is a workaround that becomes available, we may do that, but we also want to make sure the service is reliable,” she said. “It’s a toss-up on whether you deliver a faulty service to the public before a full solution is discovered.”

With the Aug. 23 earthquake on the East Coast of the United States fresh in people’s minds, Davis wanted to remind King County residents that 911 is for emergency use only, and is still only capable of receiving phone calls.

“Texting is not available today, you cannot text to 911. We want people to use 911 responsibly. Only call 911 if you need a response from police, fire or medical. Save 911 for when you really need it. Especially in situations like earthquakes or some type of storm, 911 calls go way up and the system gets overloaded,” she said. “If we do have a disaster, stay off the phones.”


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