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Washington Beat: Text-to-911 Service Picks Up Steam

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Soon, reporting a crime or emergency will be as simple as sending a text message. The FCC is requiring cell phone companies to allow people to text 911, rather than making voice calls, but the technology faces some challenges. Washington bureau reporter Geoff Bennett filed the following report for NY1.

Contacting 911 has entered the smartphone age.

New rules adopted this month by the Federal Communications Commission require mobile carriers and many text messaging apps to enable people to send text messages to the police by the end of the year.

The Text-to-911 service is considered a lifeline, especially in cases where it’s too dangerous to talk, like domestic abuse or hostage situations. It’s also vital for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

"Text to 911 provides direct access. The connection is happens quickly. It’s more efficient. It's less risk-involved," said Dr. Christian Vogler of Gallaudet University.

Vogler and his team at Gallaudet University advised the FCC on the technology. He says, right now, a deaf person in need of help has to first contact an interpreter through a video relay service.  

"The call is delayed. It takes a long time to actually get through the relay service. Probably five to ten minutes—which, obviously, if you are having a heart attack, is not good," Vogler said.

Here’s the problem, though: Depending on where you live, that text might not go anywhere. Less than two percent of 911 dispatch centers across the country support the technology. It’s only available in parts of 16 states including New York, Texas and North Carolina.

At the moment, there is no nationwide plan to implement Text-to-911.

While that’s being worked out, the FCC says that texting the police—for now—should be limited to the hearing-impaired in the areas where it’s available.

"I know that all the deaf and hard-of-hearing people I work with have been fighting for this for a long time because they do want access now," says Vogler.

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