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TechTank

Emergency Call Centers Rolling Out Text to 911

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It’s a staple of the horror genre. While hiding in the closet the fearless hero or heroine calls 911 to alert them of an intruder only to have their voice inadvertently disclose their location. Such a scene may soon seem as antiquated as placing a call at a phone booth. Many emergency call centers across the country now have the capacity to dispatch police and fire fighting personnel in response to text messages.

Advantages of Texting 911

Placing a traditional call should remain the default for people who want to report an emergency. But, in cases of domestic violence or other situations where placing a call would endanger the victim, texting can make it easier to get help. Disability advocates have also praised the move which could benefit those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In addition, text messaging could help survivors contact first responders after a natural disaster if traditional phone systems were damaged or overloaded.

SWATTING a Major Concern

There are some real disadvantages to texting 911. The speed of communication is slower than a call. This is a critical weakness when the operator has urgent questions that require speedy answers. Another concern is malicious 911 calls or SWATTING. SWATTING is a prank 911 call intended to cause a large police mobilization, which is extremely dangerous and wastes valuable resources. Mobile applications make it relatively easy to obscure the source of a text message, which could increase the prevalence of SWATTING.

Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T have all volunteered to offer the service on May 15th. All wireless carriers must make the technology available by the end of the year. Long-term wireless providers may allow people to send pictures, videos, and GPS location information to emergency centers. This new technology could help to improve response times and aid emergency workers with potentially life saving information.

Check here if you can text 911 in your jurisdiction.

Authors

J

Joshua Bleiberg

Ph.D. student - Vanderbilt University

Former Research Analyst - The Brookings Institution

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