New platform to allow access to emergency services without placing phone calls
By the summer of 2019, residents of Plano will be able to text their 911 call center.
The software upgrade will cost the city upwards of $350,000. The funding was first approved by the city council on Feb. 11, said Susan Rodriguez, a public information specialist for Plano Public Safety.
“The text to 911 system has been in the works for a while, but there are only so many tech projects the city can handle at one time,” Rodriguez said. “It was proposed by the 911 center itself, but they have to go through a pretty strenuous process to get it on the budget.”
Text to 911 is still not available in many areas across North Texas, including parts of Collin and Dallas County. However, other large cities such as Houston and San Antonio do have the technology.
Rodriguez said the existing 911 infrastructure, which was built in 1968, is based on traditional landline technology.
“It takes a lot of funding to renovate it, which is the main reason the texting system is not yet widespread,” she said.
Currently, people who are deaf or hard of hearing use a TTY, which is a telecommunication device for the deaf. It is a keyboard with an attached phone that allows for text communication over a phone line. The message is transcribed onto a teleprinter at the 911 call center or shows up on a digital monitor.
“I think this is a move in the right direction,” said Milind Wadhwa, a finance junior and Plano resident. “There are so many dangerous situations where talking out loud can just make it worse. This will prevent that from happening.”
Kortney Sorrell, a community outreach coordinator for The Turning Point Rape Crisis Center, said the new 911 system will be especially useful for sexual assault and domestic violence cases. Perpetrators may become aggressive if they hear the victims talking, she said.
“Overall, I think that victims of sexual assault and anything related to trafficking and domestic violence will all find this very useful,” Sorrell said. “The only downside is that only the big carriers like T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon will support it. People (who) either have a prepaid cell phone or don’t have a major carrier can’t take advantage of the service.”
Once a 911 call center requests the text to 911 feature, the cellular providers in the area have six months to make the feature available to their customers. If someone tries to text a call center where the service is unavailable, the Federal Communications Commission requires that cellular providers send a bounce-back message advising users to contact 911 by calling.
“The handling of the texts will be similar to how we deal with deaf callers now. The texts will show up on a machine, and that’s how we will communicate,” Rodriguez said. “The younger generation has definitely embraced the cell phone more than the TTY.”
Rodriguez said though the new text-to-911 feature will add convenience for some users, a phone call is still the preferred method of contacting emergency services.
“We can glean a lot from the background noise of a call and the way a person speaks on the phone,” she said. “In addition, we cannot pinpoint an exact location based on a cell phone, but we can from a landline.”