The state’s 911 operators will soon be able to receive emergency reports by text message. The Tennessee Emergency Communications Board voted unanimously Thursday to approve a pilot project led by AT&T.
It sounds like a relatively simple advance in technology, but telecom companies have spent years trying to find a good way to send text messages to 911, and they still don’t have one.
Tennessee will become the largest test case in the country. Smaller-scale systems have been implemented in Vermont and North Carolina where very few people used the service.
As AT&T’s Jean-Claude Rizk describes it, there’s a delicate balance between letting people know they can get help with a text and making sure they know a phone call is still preferred.
“It’s a challenge and we’re going to have to work with it here, because you don’t want people to text to 911 as their primary means of communication.”
Starting in the fall, Rizk says AT&T customers will be able to text emergency messages to a five-digit shortcode, though the aim is to eventually make it possible to text 911 directly. The telecom giant hopes to work out the kinks and expand the technology nationwide in the next few years. But Rizk says the test phase could
“We don’t know what we don’t know. The purpose of running trials is to find out.”
Telecoms already know that text messages can have a delay, and 911 operators say a phone call will always be preferred. But phone companies are moving ahead at the behest of the Federal Communications Commission. The shootings at Virginia Tech were a catalyst since students had no way to text emergency responders.