In case of an emergency, most people still grab a phone and contact 911 the old-fashioned way: a voice call.
But with text messaging becoming more common and easier, the federal government has mandated that all cellphone carriers support text-to-911 service by the end of the year.
The Federal Communications Commission is not, however, requiring that 911 call centers upgrade their technology to accept the messages, creating something of a patchwork of text-friendly emergency dispatchers across the country.
Locally, it’s no different. Of the seven parish 911 districts in the metro New Orleans area, three — Jefferson, St. Tammany and Plaquemines — are preparing their systems to receive text messages, citing some advantages of the new technology.
However, Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes are in no rush to upgrade, saying the change is too expensive and is just a stopgap measure that will be outdated as an initiative called Next Generation 911 becomes the industry standard in coming years, allowing not only text messages but also video and photos to be sent to emergency operators.
Like many new technologies, text-to-911 systems can be cost-prohibitive for some parishes. Building one from scratch could cost millions of dollars, according to the National 911 Program, a federal agency.
But advocates for the deaf and those with speech disabilities say it’s a safety issue because text messaging allows such people to communicate with dispatchers in an emergency. According to the FCC, about 48 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, while about 7.5 million have speech disabilities.
Others point to the fact that sending messages is becoming more and more commonplace, with more than 70 percent of cellphone users sending texts, according to the FCC.
While the FCC has mandated that cellphone companies must be able to accommodate the text messages, the agency has not set a deadline for 911 call centers to have text-receiving technology in place.
Right now, only Maine and Vermont have statewide text-to-911 capabilities. Nationwide, only about 2 percent of all dispatch centers are set up to receive text messages.
Jefferson on the verge
All emergency services in both unincorporated and incorporated parts of Jefferson Parish should have text-to-911 capabilities in about six months, said Maj. Ronnie Hoefeld, who oversees communications for the Sheriff’s Office.
Officials are in the process of testing the system, which is being set up by a third-party vendor at a cost of about $120,000, he said.
Benefits of the service, Hoefeld said, could include allowing the victim of a home invasion to contact police without making it obvious. But a drawback to the service is that, unlike a phone call, a text message does not tell a dispatcher where the communication is coming from, meaning there could be a delay in sending help until the person sends his or her location.
“The person’s ability in speed and typing would be the only hang-up,” Kenner Police Chief Michael Glaser said of the system. “The back-and-forth voice call is a lot easier.”
Even after the Jefferson Parish text-to-911 service is active, there will be a need to educate the public that phone calls are still the preferred way to communicate with authorities during an emergency, he said. “We don’t want them to send us a text about a crash, but a home invasion or kidnapping or a domestic incident — these will be the exceptions.”
Kinks in St. Tammany
Rodney Hart, executive director of the St. Tammany Parish Communication District, which administers 911 services for public-safety agencies there, said he is working with cell service providers to work out kinks before launching its system.
He said he sees many of the same benefits as Hoefeld and added that the service will be beneficial for deaf or hearing-impaired people who right now are able to communicate with 911 only from a teletype machine in their home. When the text-to-911 service goes live in the coming months — there is no definite date for that — such people will be as free as anyone else to contact authorities anytime they might see or become involved with an emergency situation.
“I think that’s a very good thing,” Hart said.
Still, there will be some delays in getting information to fire or ambulance services, he acknowledged.
Anyone who texts 911 in St. Tammany will reach one of the five law enforcement agencies in the parish: the Slidell, Mandeville, Covington or Pearl River police departments or the Sheriff’s Office.
One dispatcher will receive the text messages, while another will need to call the appropriate fire department or ambulance service and verbally relay the information.
“I don’t lose sleep about that, only because in the places that have executed it ... they might receive two texts a week,” Hart said. “It’s a really low percentage of the call rate. But we do want to be conscious of it and have pretty much every avenue you could have to get 911.”
Too unreliable for Orleans
Vermont adopted the practice fairly early with a statewide system but has seen scant use of text messages.
According to data provided by David Tucker, executive director of Vermont’s Enhanced 911 Board, since April 2012, 588 texts have been received by 911 operators in that state.
Of those, 329 were tests sent when a new carrier became capable of receiving texts to 911.
Among the remaining 259 texts, 19 concerned crimes that were not deemed to be an emergency while 74 were legitimate emergencies that required some type of response. Those emergencies included auto accidents, burglaries, intruders, erratic driving, drug dealing, assaults and threats of assault, Tucker said. Eight of the 74 were related to suicide threats, and another eight involved domestic violence situations.
That relatively rare use is one reason the service won’t be used in New Orleans, said Stephen Gordon, director of the Orleans Parish Communications District, which houses and equips 911 call centers for the city’s police and fire departments and emergency medical services.
The fact that the technology still is in its infancy concerns Gordon as well.
He noted that sometimes texts do not go through, meaning that someone could be trying to communicate an emergency in vain.
“It’s not settled enough. It’s not reliable,” he said of the technology.
Instead, he said, the OPCD will wait for Next Generation 911 to be developed in a few years rather than spend money on an interim text-only service.
Concerns in St. Bernard
St. Bernard Parish Fire Chief Thomas Stone, who also is the acting chairman of the St. Bernard Parish Communications District, said cost is a concern for him.
“We have so many other problems with 911 because our expenditures exceed our revenue,” he said, noting that the district has the post-Katrina problem of a smaller population and fewer dollars coming in but a responsibility to cover the same large parish footprint as before the storm.
And with the rate at which software and hardware change these days, Stone said, trying to upgrade right now wouldn’t be worth it.
Already, equipment bought after Katrina is showing its age.
“It’s just like your laptop. You buy it now, and next year there’s a better one and now they don’t make the parts anymore,” he said.
Stone, like Gordon in Orleans Parish, said it probably won’t be until Next Generation 911 is more common that St. Bernard Parish 911 would become capable of receiving text messages.
Elsewhere in the metro area, a Plaquemines Parish spokeswoman said text-to-911 service should be in operation there “in the very near future.”
In the River Parishes, it will be years before the service arrives.
Sgt. Dane Clement, a spokesman for the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office, said there are no plans now to add the capability but that it could be on the horizon in coming years.
Capt. Pat Yoes, a St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said that once that parish’s 911 network is completely upgraded to Next Generation 911, text messages will be accepted then.
Gordon, with the Orleans Parish 911 call center, said that just as older dispatch systems that involved index cards and conveyor belts seem quaint today, voice-only communications in emergencies will be viewed similarly in a few generations.
“Quite a few years from now ... children or teenagers won’t imagine not being able to send a picture” to a 911 call center, he said.
Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.