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In the basement of an Iowa county jail there is a technology revolution underway. The emergency call center for Black Hawk United States, located in Waterloo, is the first in the country to accept text messages sent to 911.
"I think there is a need to get out front and get this technology available," Black Hawk County police chief Thomas Jennings was quoted as saying in an Aug. 5 Associated Press article.
Monica Gavio, Southern New Jersey vice president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), believes more centers need to adapt this technology. She was quoted in an Aug. 11 Philadelphia Inquirer story as saying: "More and more people rely on text messaging. The younger generation is using it more than voice."
Gavio and other advocates also point to text technology benefitting people who have speech or hearing impairments. As well, they say there are also situations, such as abductions, where speaking might not be possible or advisable. In 2006, a 14-year-old girl was kidnapped in North Carolina. She was rescued after texting her mother on her captor's phone, according to the Inquirer story. The technology used to accept texts could also be used in the future to allow photos and video to be sent to call centers.
Debate about texting 911
In Victoria, B.C., where ParetoLogic is proudly located, Victoria Police Department spokesman Grant Hamilton said 911 texts cannot be received. Inspector Cam Baldwin of the Winnipeg Police Service said the issue has been widely debated across the country. He described it as a "somewhat contentious" issue. One major concern is the possibility of misuse.
"There is already a high percentage of false and bogus 911 calls which consume police resources each day," Baldwin, whose department does not offer the service, told the ParetoLogic newsletter. "It is believed that texting allows malicious use of 911 with reduced accountability."
He also stated text messaging can be slow. It can take longer to ask questions and receive information, which could significantly delay response times, the communications division officer said.
As for those who cannot speak on the phone, Baldwin encourages them to text a friend and have that person call on their behalf. The issue of texting 911 for people with disabilities could be put under the spotlight soon thanks to recently mandated changes made by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. It has requires that, by January 2010, companies investigate possible improvements to 911 services for Canadians with speech or hearing disabilities, according to a July 22 Mobile Syrup website article.
Money is a stumbling block
In the United States, a major obstacle in the way of widespread adoption of 911 texting technology is funding. NENA states it would cost tens of millions of dollars and take about three years to upgrade America's 911 call centers to Internet protocol-based broadband.
In almost every state cell phone users pay a monthly fee ranging from 20 cents to $1.50 for "E911" or enhanced 911 services. However, with money being tight, states have dipped into those funds to pay for other services. The Associated Press reported that in the last two years more than $200 million collected for 911 upgrades has been used for other expenditures. New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Hawaii, Arizona and Oregon all follow this practice, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
First, but limited
In Black Hawk County, 911 texting is starting with a few limitations. Currently only subscribers to i wireless, a local carrier that is affiliated with T-Mobile USA, can use the service. Texters using another carrier will receive a reply asking them to dial 911.
As well, the service can only be used within the county limits. If an i wireless user texts 911 they will be asked for the city they are in or ZIP code. If the location is in the county then they will be sent through to an operator who will be able to text back using their computer and has been given a "texting dictionary" and training. However, if the location the user gives is outside the county they will be asked to call 911.
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