LEWISTOWN - According to Forrester Research, an estimated 6 billion text messages are sent every day in the United States. This still relatively-new technology has changed how the entire world communicates, especially in the way people can communicate with 911.
Many 911 call centers across the country do not have the capability to accept text messages in any form, but that is slowly changing with 16 states starting to accept calls in a text message format. In Pennsylvania, five counties have deployed a text-to-911 system, including Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lehigh and Luzerne. For the Juniata Valley, this system could be coming to the Mifflin and Juniata county emergency communication centers within the next two years.
Simply put, text-to-911 refers to the ability to send text messages to local 911 communication centers. Allen Weaver, director of emergency services for Juniata County, said as of May 15 all major cell phone carriers had to have this service available.
"Even if the county itself does not offer this service, the cell phone carrier sends a bounce-back message to the phone holder with a 'this is not available in your area'," Weaver said. "This would happen if a resident from Juniata (County) were to try it, they would receive the bounce-back message."
This does not mean that the centers cannot receive text messages. Through a program to assist the deaf and hard of hearing, both the Mifflin and Juniata call centers can receive text messages. Phil Lucas, public safety director for Mifflin County, said the volume for this program is very low for the local area.
"The volume is low enough that we have to test the system and keep the staff trained on how to do it," Lucas said. "Many of the test sites for text-to-911 throughout the country have said the volume of text messages is low to this system."
Text-to-911 is an interim solution until what both Weaver and Lucas are calling "Next-generation 911" is in place. Next-generation 911 will be the ability to not only call the county center, but to also send a text message, picture or video to that call center.
"This could be helpful on a variety of levels," Weaver said. "This could be helpful when a crime is in progress, the caller is facing domestic abuse, the caller is injured and cannot speak, or a variety of other scenarios that could happen."
These calls could also provide additional information useful to the 911 center including the caller's medical history, the schematics of a building, or even images of an accident scene. It could also help with the number of units that would need to be dispatched. However, this kind of technology is still several years away, but the update to text-to-911 is being put into effect soon.
Weaver and Lucas said they have been working toward being able to accept text messages, but are not completely sure what that means for their individual communication centers.
Weaver said the Juniata County Communication Center is looking into a web portal text-to-911 program, which would require the computer to have access to the Internet. This system also requires a separate monitor for the portal, but some equipment manufacturers are working to incorporate the portal into the main 911 computer display.
"The funding for the interim solution is not going to be severe because of only needing a few new computers and to upgrade the software," Weaver said. "When it comes to do the full upgrade for next-generation funding will be another story."
Weaver said his office is still discussing the change to the system and does not have a timeline for when it will be available in the area.
Lucas said upgrades are currently being done to the Mifflin County Emergency Communications Center, with the installation of new computers having just been completed.
"The upgrades were already planned, but we have been able to combine them with the update to be able to allow for text-to-911," Lucas said. "However, a lot of work still needs to be done."
Lucas said the current plan is to use a next-generation 911 interface solution, which would require Internet protocol equipment and IP connectivity to the phone carrier.
"Our biggest concern with this is the security of our callers," Lucas said. "If we have to have more connections to the Internet, we would need more firewalls and security measures in place."
Lucas said a benefit to this system, however, is that the message is delivered directly into the 911 system and if done right will be completely compatible with a full next-generation 911 solution.
"We may not know exactly what next-generation will mean for us," Lucas said. "But at least we can try and be ready for it when it does come."
The Mifflin County Emergency Communication Center's upgrades come from a recent allocation of money through grant proposals. Lucas said along with the installation of new computers, the grant also allows for upgrades to the radio communication lines and phone lines. Lucas hopes that a software update can be completed around the end of the year and the service of text-to-911 will be implemented next year.
Both Weaver and Lucas said more information will be available to residents of Mifflin and Juniata counties when the text-to-911 systems are in place for the individual counties.