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Text to 911 – Do you Hear What I Hear?

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text2-911_iStock_000019227418XSmall.jpgIf you follow the 911 industry, you couldn’t help but notice all of the stories announcing the voluntary agreement and joint statement made to the FCC by the National Emergency Number Association (the 9-1-1 Association), APCO International, and carriers AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon (the Big 4) announcing their commitment to “voluntarily offer their subscribers text based emergency communication services, in accordance with the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (“ATIS”) industry-standard solution (currently expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2013), to requesting Public Safety Answering Points (“PSAPs”).”

If you follow me on Twitter @Fletch911, you would’ve seen that on Thursday evening around dinnertime :-)

As expected, this topic has sparked a considerable amount of additional questions, and debate, from the technology community asking not only “How?” but “Why?” My initial response to that is “where were all of you folks when the FCC and the industry was discussing this and asking for comment for the past several years?”

Of course it’s easy to find stories of people hiding in their closets, or under beds where they were hiding from an intruder, or some other danger. There are stories where SMS messaging, regardless of its unreliability, was the only moode of communications working during a massive disaster (something I personally experienced during the recent hurricane Sandy). But a community of users, that is quite often forgotten, are those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. One of the first questions many will ask is “How many deaf or hard of hearing people are there in the United States?”

Unfortunately, this seemingly straightforward question, doesn’t have a single simple answer. One of the best resources for this topic is the Gallaudet University (www.Gallaudet.edu), and the Gallaudet Research Institute (www.Gallaudet.edu/gallaudet_research_Institute.html) whose legislated obligation is to “support and conduct research, and disseminate findings, on topics of concern to deaf people and those who live, work with, and educate them.”

As I’ve mentioned in other podcasts, and in my presentations to the FCC, the deaf and hard of hearing community today is, from a emergency call to 911 perspective, treated like second-class citizens. 911 can be dialed from nearly any device you can make a phone call from, including non-initialized cellular phones. However, those that are not able to use the telephone must resort to another means of communication. With smart phones, computers, and now tablets, more and more people have a means to communicate with nearly any other person on the planet through multiple means of communications including email, video, SMS messaging, and of course the old-fashioned voice mechanism. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, those devices are also available to you to communicate just like anyone else, except to 911 in an emergency.

The immediate response I get from most people, who happen to have their hearing, is that “I thought it was the law that 911 centers have TDD/TTY enabled call taker positions?” Although that is correct, most deaf or hard of hearing users don’t carry around the typewriter sized TDD/TTY required to communicate, or don’t have access to a telephone line where they can plug that machine in.

Another point that is lost by those of us who have our hearing, is the extreme inefficiency of communicating by TDD/TTY. In today’s day of broadband connectivity, and near real-time communication over just about any media, there are few left that have ever “heard” a TDD/TTY communicating.

NEED HELP! SEND THE POLICE TO 5429 SOUTHWEST. 1ST STREET, APARTMENT 27D. THERE ARE TWO PEOPLE BREAKING MY WINDOW AND I AM HIDING IN THE CLOSET

Although that seems like a simple message, transmitting that via TDD/TTY is included this week in my Podcast
The TTY/TDD Audio is at about 04:20

TDD_TTY-Audio.jpg

By my watch, that took 30 seconds to play out. That did not include the time it took to type it, the time it took the network to transmit it, the time it took to type a response, or the time it took to transmit that response.

The point I’m trying to make here is a simple one. I have seen proposals that have suggested the industry uses the existing TDD/TTY communications mechanism to deliver text to 911 centers. Although this would be possible, what we don’t want to do is to invest in an archaic technology that does not address other issues such as real-time text, and multimedia communications directly with the 911 call taker using American Sign Language, and a video interpreter. That is going to take a Next Generation, Emergency Services IP Network, and the industry needs to focus on the delivery of this new backbone that will make the multimedia experience we all enjoy today easily, and affordably, available to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Fortunately the FCC is in agreement as well, as clearly stated by Chairman Genachowski.

I commend the carriers and industry organizations that have banded together to file this letter of intent to solve this problem. It brings awareness of this problem too many who never knew it existed, and ultimately will help deliver common modern-day communications to our emergency responders and our citizens.

For those of you that think this is type of network is not possible, or too forward-looking, and well beyond today’s available technology, I’ll gladly refer you to the REACH 112 Total Conversation project. “Total Conversation means a standardized concept where you can use video, text and speech at the same time in a call. It can be seen as an extension of the videophone concent by consistent addition of the real-time text medium.”

After all, whether you dial 911, 999, or 112, the end goal is the ability to reach emergency services By Anyone, on Any Device, and from Anywhere. I don’t see any borders mentioned in that statement, and as an industry we should strive to see this agreement extend well beyond the US.


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Public comments, suggestions, corrections and loose change is all graciously accepted ;-)
Until next week. . . dial carefully.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Fletch911

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Mark Fletcher is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. He is responsible for ensuring the roadmap and strategy of Next Generation Emergency Services in both the public and private sectors. With nearly 3 decades of experience in telecom, he has built and managed some of the world’s largest private networks. Mark is regularly called upon to provide insights to legislators and the industry to drive forward both innovation and compliance. more

4 comments
Arnoud van Wijk
Arnoud van Wijk

Hi Mark, thank you for the excellent article. It is good to see that there are some people in the industry that understand and care for the need for equal telecommunications and Total Conversation and Real-Time Text. And the REACH112 solution is frankly the best way for 911/112/emergency calls. SMS is ONLY as an additional communication line. Hope to meet you again in 2013.

Gary Allen
Gary Allen

My recollection is that there has been tremendous pressure for text-to-911 from members of Congress who have used the argument: Kids have more communications power with smartphones than public safety agencies have with 911. There was little or no conversation about bringing 911 parity to the deaf and hard of hearing. Now, it's the only reason mentioned. And I could argue that the only reason that any company voluntarily commit to a technology change is that they want to do avoid Congressional involvement, which always complicates technology choices. Don't assign too much carrier goodwill to the move--it's business. I also noticed that the commitment is conditioned on PSAPs formally requesting it. Which comm center is ready to start taking text messages? Especially in light of one comment I saw in response to this announcement: "People are going to be sending them SO much porn!" Oh, wow.

Mark J. Fletcher, ENP
Mark J. Fletcher, ENP

Arnoud, My work on the FCC EAAC with you and many others has certainly opened my eyes. Awareness of the problem will bring out the best minds and the technology that can make a difference. I am sure once more folks see the great work done with Real-Time Text and REACH112 with Total Conversation they will see the limitations of SMS converted to TTY. Great working with you this year on this initiative, and hope to see you soon! Fletch

Mark J. Fletcher, ENP
Mark J. Fletcher, ENP

Gary, you are correct. The way we all communicate today has grossly overshadowed the technology available to the PSAP. Your question of "who is ready?" is one of the things I worry about, and the reason that I highlighted the inefficiency of legacy TDD/TTY. If that becomes widely deployed as a 'stop-gap' then we are being a little short sighted. Sure a text message will make it to the 911 center, but we need to be focusing on multi-media. The folks at http://reach112.eu have done wonderful things with Real Time Text and Total Conversation which will preserve the all important audio path that can contain valuable audible clues such as sounds of struggling or gunshots. Thanks for your comments! Fletch