Tarrant County 911 District is preparing for the possibility of accepting emergency text messages.
The district handled more than 2.15 million calls in 2016 with nearly 83 percent of those calls coming from cellphones. A consultant is now in place to give insight into a possible future of fielding emergencies via text messages.
“We hope that this consultant that we hired would be able to give us some direction,” Executive Director Greg Petrey said. “Is it best to have everybody answer the calls or is it better to have one entity answer the calls and transfer the legitimate calls? Is it best to have a text-only location?”
This comes as the 911 district works to upgrade.
“We are in the process of replacing all the 911 equipment. That’s about a $20 million investment,” Petrey said. “We have made a determination that we want to use that equipment to answer text calls when the time is correct.”
Petrey said there are still some concerns surrounding handling “text to 911” calls.
“There are so many unknown issues,” he said. “First off is funding. There is no special mechanism for 'text to 911.'”
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Petey said there are also worries about the length of time it takes for a text message to reach dispatch and how quickly help can be sent.
“Texting is not real time,” Petrey said. “I personally have had texts delayed two or three days because of cell tower congestion. If you send a text, there is no guarantee it makes it through.”
“There is a European model that says it will take 11 minutes to process a 'text to 911' call,” he added. “Most of our public safety answer points have a one minute deadline…to get that call out and to get police or fire en route.”
Petrey added that operators would have to be well-versed in texting language and abbreviations.
“You and I can spend two or three minutes to figure out what they mean [in a text], but a call-taker has three or four seconds to figure out what the caller wants,” he said.
The Tarrant County 911 District is working with other districts that have already implemented the system to learn from what they are experiencing.
“We have too many high-volume locations that don’t need to experiment,” Petrey said. “We are letting other people experiment and we are going to build our system based on their recommendations or their knowledge.”
The best case scenario: A “text to 911” system would not be available for full deployment until 2020 at the earliest, but a system would be in place for a smaller scale deployment by 2018.