July 13, 2016
The text messages sent by victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando serve as a harrowing reminder to their helplessness in the face of danger.
Unable to text Orlando police directly – and too scared to make a call – they instead sent messages to loved ones, urging them to dial 911.
The massacre underscored the need for text-to-911 capabilities, a modern service most U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, currently lack.
Philadelphia is in the process of overhauling its antiquated 911 system to not only enable text-to-911 services, but also upgrade existing capabilities. One day, the system might also be able to accept images and videos submitted by people facing emergencies.
It's part of a nationwide effort, dubbed Next Generation, that aims to enable emergency responders to receive and transfer digital information more efficiently.
The city is negotiating a contract with a vendor to purchase new equipment that will enable emergency call takers to receive and respond to text messages, Chief Information Officer Charles Brennan said. The upgrade is expected to cost several million dollars.
"Even if texting didn't exist, we'd have to replace [the current 911 system] anyway because it's at the end of its life," Brennan said.
Once an agreement is finalized, it will take about 18 months before the new system launches. The timeline might sound lengthy, but Brennan said it is necessary.
The 911 system is among the most robust – and redundant – systems in the city. Everything has a backup, ensuring that the system remains active despite any failure.
"We can't miss one phone call," Brennan said. "It's not like we can just turn off the old system and ... see if the new one works. It is really, really a complex project and a very difficult project."
Three neighboring counties – Bucks, Chester and Montgomery – have had their own text-to-911 services since the beginning of 2015.
Bucks and Chester counties are temporarily using technology in which operators utilize a web portal to receive and respond to text messages. When a text message comes into the 911 center, an indicator appears on all screens and an idle operator fields the text, sending messages back to the texter.
Both counties eventually plan to upgrade their phone systems to allow operators to field text messages like a phone call. Montgomery County launched such a system one year ago.
Despite the availability of 911 texting services in these counties, personnel field very few text messages. The overwhelming majority of people continue to dial 911 – the method preferred by emergency officials.
Verbal communication not only transmits information faster, but it also reduces confusion, emergency officials say. Telecommunicators can quickly ask a caller to clarify information.
"Anytime you can make a voice call, you should call," Bucks County 911 Coordinator Audrey Kenny said. "It's so much easier to have this dialogue back and forth."
Bucks County has received 216 text-to-911 calls this year – about 35 per month, Kenny said. Chester County received about 200 over the last year, mostly from people testing the system as instructed by emergency officials.
Any fears of being people opting to text rather than call have not been realized, Chester County 911 Deputy Director John Haynes said.
"We have not had a single incident of a young person texting us, because they didn't want to speak to us," Haynes said. "It doesn't occur. We have not been overwhelmed with texts."
The service has enabled some residents to contact 911 in situations they previously could not. In addition, it also benefits people with hearing disabilities.
"We've had people who were with other people who had committed crimes," Haynes said. "They couldn't call 911 and say, 'This person is wanted by the law.' We've had some issues where people were in cars with (drunken) people who should not have been driving."
Likewise, Montgomery County call takers fielded a text from an individual hiding from a burglar, Deputy Director for Emergency Communications Michael Vest said.
Yet, only about 650 of more than 6,000 dispatch centers across the country can accept text messages. Another 150 dispatch centers are expected to add texting capabilities by the end of the year. But very few major cities have dispatch centers that can handle text messages.
Upgrading 911 services in Philadelphia brings unique challenges. Unlike many suburban counties, which have one 911 center, Philadelphia has four dispatch centers.
The main center, located within the police administration building, handles about 3 million service calls each year.
Any fire-related call must be transferred to a separate fire dispatch center. The city also has an overflow center for 911 calls and a 911 training center.
"We have to make it work in four different locations and we have to be able to transfer that text between those locations," Brennan said.
Additionally, 911 call personnel will need to be trained on new operational standards. In Montgomery County, officials needed to draft procedures from scratch.
Revamping Philly's system and retraining its operators amounts to an extensive overhaul, Philadelphia police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said.
"It wouldn't just be an overnight process," Stanford said.
Eventually, Brennan said, Philadelphia and its neighbors will be linked in ways that they have never before been connected. And it will improve the ability of emergency responders to efficiently transmit critical information.
Philadelphia's dispatch centers occasionally receive calls from people in neighboring counties. Calls themselves can be transferred to the correct center, but any information taken by an operator or the system itself cannot be transferred. The caller must then repeat that information to the correct dispatch center, potentially losing valuable seconds.
In the future, Brennan said, 911 staffers will be able to immediately send that information – and the caller – to the correct dispatch center. Plus, digital content submitted by people facing emergencies might also prove to be a game-changer in the not-so-distant future.
"What if we get a picture of the bad guy or a video of the bad guy and the cops can shoot that out to everyone?" Brennan said. "The texting part is the minor part."