911 technology struggles to keep up with the times

Associated Press


High-school students hiding from the gunman in Parkland, Fla., were forced to whisper in calls to 911 for fear of tipping off their location. Others texted friends and family who then relayed information to emergency dispatchers over the phone.

A few months later, a woman in Michigan was able to send off short text messages to 911 dispatchers as her homicidal husband held their daughter hostage. She was able to convey enough information to help officers get to the scene and formulate a plan to stop the man without the family being harmed.

The two cases show how that in this era of active shooters, police shootings and global terrorism, a patchwork of technology around the country can make the experience of calling 911 vastly different depending on where you live. More cities have begun to accept text messages recently, but the system that Americans rely on during their most vulnerable moments still hinges largely on landline telephones, exposing a weak link that jeopardizes the ability of law enforcement to respond in an emergency.

“Most of the technology that’s in the nation’s 911 centers today is technology of last century. It’s voice-centric communications,” said Brian Fontes, chief executive officer of the National Emergency Number Association.

Nearly 80 percent of the nation’s 911 calls come from cellphones. Yet the dispatchers on the other end are hampered by outdated technology that in most cases doesn’t allow them to accept text messages, receive a live-streaming video or sometimes even easily detect where the caller is. It’s a striking contrast at a time when text messaging is ubiquitous, video chats with friends and family on the other side of the world are common, and Uber and Lyft drivers can pinpoint precise locations of riders.

The issue received new attention this week after the results of a police investigation in Cincinnati revealed numerous breakdowns in the response to a teenager who got trapped under the backseat of his minivan and died despite voice-dialing 911.

Experts worry that the nation isn’t focused enough on improving the system, and it is causing delays in getting emergency responders to the scene as fast as possible.

One obstacle is that there’s no federal mandate or standards for call centers, with each one managed by state and local governments. That means there’s a wide range of standards, equipment and training. And a recent report by the Federal Communications Commission found that a surcharge paid by phone customers that is supposed to be directed to 911 is diverted by some states to other needs, to the tune of about $128 million.

It would cost considerably more than that to upgrade every call center in the United States. But David Turetsky, former chief of the public safety and homeland-security bureau at the FCC, said there could be ways to reduce those costs by ensuring the system is more interconnected and working together, rather than separately.

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