Why Texting 911 May Not Save Your Life

Everyone knows dialing 911 is the surest way to get help in an emergency. But what about texting it – is that as safe? In a strange, eyebrow-raising twist to logic, a new service geared to do just that might not be the most foolproof way to reach out in an emergency. So what’s really going on here?

Defying what would seem to be common sense and logic, the introduction of the texting service Text-911 has not been fully integrated with all telecommunication carriers. A slew of companies, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile all plan to roll out the service nationwide by May 15, 2014. But smaller wireless providers won’t be onboard nearly as early. And without prior knowledge of which services are online and which aren’t, the bounce-back factor for users in emergency situations is sure to be high in the coming months.

To make matters even more dicey, geolocation will not be included with the first rollout. And not all areas will be set up with the PSAPs, or Public Safety Answering Points program, which means even if your telecom provider supports text-911, your local emergency response system may not.

This is a service slated to provide help to people with disabilities, who may find it easier to text 911 then call it. These days about 70 percent of all 911 calls are placed on cell phones – and with texting so prevalent, emergency situations with limited time and other unforeseen obstacles may make texting a more ideal choice to get help.

Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics and the author of The Wireless Industry: The Essential Engine of US Economic Growth, thinks the service could be a positive – if people could use it. He says the main problem, and danger, is implementation. Or the lack thereof.

“More than 10 percent of wireless users are not included in the first go-around and don’t even know it,” he explained. “Only a few over-the-top text providers are included, adding to the confusion and potential for serious harm. Customers of regional carriers and smaller messaging app providers are potentially getting hurt as they may think that their 911 texts are going through, but they disappear into thin air without a bounce-back message.”

There’s another barrier to the service, says Marc O’Krent, the president and founder of the answering service the Telephone Connection. If the geolocation function is not enabled, users will still have to text their location to responders, further complicating and adding a hurdle to the process. And a danger to people as response time is a major factor in emergencies.

“Without geolocation that shows the exact location of the wireless caller,  the  911 call or text from a wireless phone is potentially useless and  dangerous because the person dialing 911 or  texting 911 still may have to report their  location to the agency answering  the phone on the other end.” O’Krent said. “In an emergency situation that just adds stress and potential danger to what could already be a life or death matter.”

With lawmakers slow to implement change, and telecom providers also toeing the line, right now there’s no true solution to this texting problem — except for people to simply pick up their phone and dial 911 instead of texting it. With a little more than a year to go before the service is rolled out nationwide, and other telecom providers not yet even scheduled to launch, the best call is making one.

Adam Popescu
Adam Popescu
Adam Popescu has covered social media, green business and eco-travel for a variety of news outlets, including Marketplace, LA Weekly and Los Angeles Times Community Newspapers.
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