Public Safety, Disability Rights Advocates Stress Need to Push Text-to 911 Adoption

Public safety officials and advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing agreed today that there needs to be more education to – and pressure placed on – public safety answering point (PSAP) representatives as well as other local and state officials to upgrade call centers so they can accept texts.   In August, the FCC adopted a second report and order requiring wireless carriers and interconnected, over-the-top (OTT) texting providers by year-end to be capable of deploying text-to-911 services (TRDaily, Aug. 8). Providers have to offer text-to-911 offerings within six months of a valid PSAP request.

As part of an agreement between public safety groups and the four national wireless carriers announced in 2012 (TRDaily, Dec. 12, 2012), those providers met a May 15 deadline for being capable of deploying text-to-911 services to PSAPs. The order codified that accord and extended it to other wireless carriers and interconnected OTT texting providers.

In a companion third further notice of proposed rulemaking, the FCC solicited comments on other improvements to text-to-911. For example, it proposed to require carriers, within two years, to deliver the best available location information with texts and to require them to support roaming. It also sought comment on whether to extend the text-to-911 mandate to OTT texting providers that are not interconnected, Wi-Fi-only networks, real-time texting, and telematics services.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has called on PSAPs to step up and upgrade their facilities so they can accept texts, saying that progress has been too slow.

At an FCC forum today on advances in accessible wireless emergency communications technologies, David Furth, deputy chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said that more than 125 PSAPs in the U.S. can now accept texts. Information collected by the FCC says that as of Sept. 23, the number stood at 138, although at least 40 PSAPs have upgraded since then.  During today’s event, representatives of two companies that work for carriers to transmit texts said the number of PSAPs that are ready to accept texts is higher.

Mary Boyd, vice president-government/external affairs for Intrado, Inc., said her company’s figures show deployment at 282 PSAPs with 205 in progress. She said that PSAPs that have upgraded to receive texts have gotten an average of about three a day. “The 911 centers are not overwhelmed by texts,” she said.

Tim Lorello, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of competitor TeleCommunication Systems, Inc., said about 300 text-to-911 deployments are live or in trials and another 300 are in the process of deployment. Numerous speakers at today’s event noted that there are at least 6,000 PSAPs in the U.S.

Public safety representatives and advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing said today that PSAP upgrades have been too slow to come and said there is a need for a more coordinated education outreach campaign to key decision-makers at the state and local levels to take steps to be able to accept texts.

“The adoption rate thus far is slow,” said Jeff Cohen, chief counsel-law and policy and director-government affairs at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International.   “I think there’s less progress than needed here,” agreed Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association. “To me, there’s really no good reason not to do this pretty much right away.”  He said some jurisdictions have indicated that they want to wait until the deployment of next-generation 911 (NG-911) services before upgrading facilities for text-to-911, which he criticized, while others are not aware of the relatively low cost – he said PSAPs in a state could be upgraded for about $10,000 – or think they have to upgrade to NG-911 first.  Mr. Hixson suggested that the public safety community, advocates for the disabled, and others that support text-to-911 should work together on educational materials that can be distributed to “government decision-makers.” “Hit ‘em where the decisions get made,” he added.

Claude Stout, executive director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, agreed that it is important to lobby local officials who make decisions about PSAP spending. “How many PSAPs are truly doing their part?” he asked. “We have to produce a real significant impact at the county level.”

Matt Gerst, director-state regulatory & external affairs for CTIA, said there is need for more education of the public safety and disability communities about the “capabilities and limitations” of text-to-911 and why it is only an interim solution. He said there are still “basic questions” from those communities about that. Such education will result in more PSAP adoption of text-to-911 technology, he said. He also noted that standards work is ongoing for NG-911 deployment.

The experts said it would be helpful to draft an information sheet for local advocates with information on at least the types of government officials they should contact. Compelling personal stories of people whose lives have been saved due to text-to-911 – or those whose lives haven’t – would also be helpful, some said.

“I hate to say it, but sometimes tragedy can move the ball forward,” Mr. Stout said.   “Human interest stories do have a tendency to move us more effectively than looking at data,” added Andrew Phillips, policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf.

As for other issues that must be addressed on the text-to-911 front, speakers said more precise location accuracy and roaming are important. They also said that while text-to-911 is an important safety feature, efforts to deploy NG-911 must not slow down.

“The roaming piece is absolutely paramount,” said Brad Blanken, VP-industry development for the Competitive Carriers Association.

Earlier in the day, Richard Ray, Americans with Disabilities Act technology access coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, stressed the value of text-to-911 for people who are hard of hearing or deaf. Although the FCC has required wireless carriers to send texts to PSAPs that request them, he noted that PSAPs must complete upgrades before they can be ready. Mr. Ray noted that California Gov. Jerry Brown (D.) in September signed into law a measure to help facilitate text-to-911 functionality in the state and otherwise move on NG-911 deployment.  Mr. Ray complained about the difficulties of people who are deaf or hard of hearing calling 911 using telecommunications relay service, saying the average call takes 2 minutes, 53 seconds to connect to 911 with some calls taking as long as eight minutes.

Karen Peltz Strauss, deputy chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, and David Simpson, chief of the Public Safety Bureau, stressed the importance of equipment makers and other companies building capabilities into their products and services at the beginning to ensure that they can be accessed by people with disabilities.

To build devices and systems and then to go back and see how they can be accessed by people with disabilities “is such wrong-headed thinking when it comes to communications,” Mr. Simpson said. He also said the FCC must consider the impact of all of its rules on people with disabilities starting at the beginning of proceedings.

“Accessibility needs to be baked in to all forms of emergency communications,” agreed Suzy Rosen Singleton, an attorney-adviser in CGB’s Disability Rights Office, adding that industry should get input from stakeholders during the development process.

Ms. Peltz Strauss also noted that Mr. Wheeler recently announced the formation of an advisory committee on disability access, saying that the agency plans to seek nominations for membership soon.

Robyn Powell, an attorney-adviser at the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, noted that the council released a report in May that concluded there many areas of improvement exist to ensure that disabled people are able to be access communications before, during, and after emergencies. For example, the report said that emergency notification systems are inaccessible and it said that the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Justice should create guidance for local officials concerning effective communications for people with disabilities. The report also said that the FCC and FEMA should continue to work to ensure that alerts and warnings are fully accessible.

Kay Chiodo, chief executive officer of Deaf Link, Inc., stressed the importance of educating emergency managers on ways to communicate with people who have disabilities, including those who are deaf and hard of hearing and blind.

Bill Belt, senior director-technology and standards for the Consumer Electronics Association, said there is a need for research to educate companies so they understand the “economic benefit” of offering products that are accessible to people with disabilities.

Helena Mitchell, executive director of the Georgia Tech Center for Advanced Communications Policy and principal investigator for the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies, said the industry should expand the testing of prototype equipment using disabled persons. She said 2,000 people who her operation has contacted for prototype testing have helped facilitate the introduction of new products that are accessible to the disabled. Ms. Mitchell also said Congress should increase funding to federal government agencies that are working to help improve disability access.

Norman Williams, senior research engineer for the Gallaudet University Technology Access Program, said people who are deaf or hard of hearing should always have the option of texting emergency assistance. – Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily