While text-to-911, a feature allowing communication with emergency services via text messages, is now available in several areas of the country, Missouri may have to fix the 911 funding debacle on the state level before it can even be considered in Pettis and many other counties.
Funding for Pettis, and many other counties, emergency communications comes from a tax on landline telephones. While it seemed a good idea when the tax was approved many years ago, landline telephones have all but become extinct in today’s world of cellular technology.
This has left a huge hole in the budget of emergency communications centers throughout the state, and in Pettis County where the bulk of funding comes from a 3 to 4.5 percent tax on landline telephones. Currently, 80 percent of the calls placed to 911 locally come from cellular telephones.
“The original tax that Pettis County citizens voted on was a 15 percent tax that rolled back after 20 years and that was to buy the equipment,” said Pettis County 911 Coordinator James Theisen. “The thought was that there will be nothing but more landlines in the future and therefore it would sustain itself. In the last three years we have seen a dramatic number of people getting rid of their landlines and going to cellular. Less landlines, less revenue.”
Senate Bill 872 failed to get out of committee before the end of session, but would allow Missouri counties to impose by ordinance a $1.50 tax on cell phones and other devices capable of calling 911, among other provisions. The revenue from the tax would be used to fund emergency communication services. Another provision in the bill would impose a 3 percent tax on retail purchases of pre-paid cellular devices and a 2 percent tax on purchases of pre-paid service charges.
“The other component is the house bills and senate bills that have failed this year to give us the opportunity to go in front of the voters and ask for more money,” Theisen said.
Without the support of the legislature and the support of county voters, it is unlikely Pettis County will see text-to-911 any time soon. The equipment alone could cost close to $600,000 to $1 million.
“Pettis County would have to replace its backroom equipment. We are fortunate we applied for and got a grant for two recorders that have the ability to record the text and keep them on file, but the rest of our backroom equipment is not capable,” Theisen said. “If AT&T could get the text to us, which there’s some question as to whether their switches are capable, but if they could, our backroom equipment isn’t capable. It’s an ’80s style design and texting wasn’t available yet.”
If funding issues are resolved, the technology would give the citizens of Pettis County another option for contacting emergency services. One of the benefits is the ability to call law enforcement without having to make a sound, which could save lives in a kidnapping, burglary or other crime. In rural areas, without a strong signal, the phone may also have the ability to continually attempt to send a text message.
“On the upside, it gives people the ability to dial 911 without personal contact,” Theisen said. “As an investigative tool, you’ve got more eyes, more people you can call back if they’ve seen something like a car accident or shooting or something. It’s a definite advantage to the hearing impaired. Although they still recommend the TTY over the texting, it gives them a mobile ability to dial 911.”
Still, as with any new technology, there is a downside.
“It does not give a location. Which most people wouldn’t think about. They just assume with that technology their location information would go with it,” Theisen said. “The other downside is, if you have a big wreck on the highway, how many people are going to text that would have called. You may get 10 911 phone calls for a big accident. How many texts will we get versus calls? It may overwhelm 911 centers.”
Dispatchers are also trained to keep people on the line during an emergency as a safety precaution and so that authorities are kept abreast of the situation. With text-to-911, that may not be a possibility.
“There’s no line to stay on. Am I supposed to text you back and forth or am I supposed to call you? There isn’t a standard set,” Theisen said.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in the future, text-to-911 will be widely available in the United States. However, for now, the ability to contact 911 using text is only available on a limited basis in a few markets. For this reason, you should not rely on text to reach 911.
On Jan. 30, the FCC adopted a Policy Statement stating the goal that all wireless telephone companies and providers of interconnected text messaging services should enable consumers to send text messages to 911. The FCC encouraged industry-developed solutions to achieve this goal, and proposed rules that would require all covered text providers to support text-to-911 by Dec. 31.
AT&T officials said they are ready.
“We have met our commitment to the FCC and are ready on a nationwide basis to begin deploying text-to-911 service to all 911 agencies that request it,” said Katie Nagus, AT&T Media Relations. “A voice call to 911 is still the most efficient way to reach emergency help, and we recommend customers use the 911 texting option only when a voice call is not feasible or safe.”
The telecommunications company said it is up to 911 centers in Missouri to decide when and if they want the service. They have received 300 requests from answering points across the county and are in various stages of processing the requests.
“It is ultimately up to each Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) to decide whether or not, and when, to add text-to-911 service,” Nagus said. “The provisioning process begins with a request from the interested 911 entity and requires steps such as verifying an applicant’s readiness to receive text messages. We have and will continue to work closely with 911 agencies interested in rolling out service, beginning with our streamlined request form.”