Text to 911????

tumblr_m1kaq4nwLv1qehpd7Back in March of 2014 I published this blog about the changes coming to the 911 system.  Yesterday the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office made their announcement about their move to accept texting on behalf of all of the dispatch centers in Oakland County so that all of the bugs in the system can be worked out before individual centers begin accepting texts.  Wireless 911 calls were handled in exactly the same way back in the late 1990’s.  Much of the challenge revolves around finding the location of device texting or calling.  Any form of 911 that people must rely upon in an emergency must operate without fail, wouldn’t you agree?  Texting is an imperfect system for emergencies but the FCC has ordered that the carriers make texting to 911 workOakland County’s 911 center will accept the texts and then forward them on to us for response. You will note that in the original blog we were told that this system would be available in May 2014–that didn’t happen–just too many problems to sort out. 

Big changes are coming up to the 911 system.  The FCC has mandated that public safety answering points (like us) who answer 911 calls be able to accept texts by October of this year.  This is a big change to us and an even bigger change to the wireless companies like Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile.  The system isn’t set up to be a fail safe way to contact emergency services.  Right now, people try to send us reports on Facebook, Twitter and by text.  We don’t monitor social media in real time so we won’t know what you are saying is happening on the freeway right now.  Our system doesn’t handle that sort of communication.  We are set up to take voice calls and the system nationally works pretty flawlessly–people who call 911 from anywhere get routed by the system to the nearest 911 center which is trained and equipped to respond to the call.  Think about that — sometimes we take it for granted, how big and complex the system is and it can do it for cell phones and for wireline phones.  There isn’t a comparable system yet for texting or receiving photos or videos.

Maybe it isn’t such a big deal if your text doesn’t get through for an hour or a day but if your text is requesting emergency help–like you are under the bed while the burglars search your house, or trapped in a car that slid down a hillside.   Texting is not a failsafe system- it was never intended to be that kind of system.  There are some challenges like:  how can we identify where it is coming from like we can with 911 calls?  Right now we send police to hang up calls in case the caller couldn’t talk to us because of the emergency–how will we do that for a text?  There are a many of these kinds of  concerns and problems yet to be solved.  I know you are asking yourself why is this thing moving so fast then?  It is because those who are deaf or have reduced hearing ability also need to contact us.  There is an older system called TTY/TDD which is a communications device for the deaf or hard of hearing – all PSAPs have one.  It had its day and now we’ve moved on to texting as a solution to this challenge.

But for those of us who are not hearing impaired–DON’T TEXT US.   The Sheriff’s Office has agreed to take all texts for the county during this transitional time beginning in May (from the 4 major carriers) and transfer the text to us. Not a perfect system but we’ll do our best to make it work.

So CALL 911 if you can – text if you can’t.

Here is more information.



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I'm the Chief of Police for the Auburn Hills Police Department.