In July of 2013 NPR reported that of the 6,000+ 911 centers in the United States, less than 1% could process text messages sent to 911. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed legislation that would require all public safety answering points (PSAPs) and wireless providers to support texts to 911 by December of 2014. The upgrade is not as simple as it sounds. PSAPs are locally managed and utilize a wide variety of equipment. For many PSAPs, accepting texts means several layers of expensive upgrades. Compounding the issue is the fact that there are limited State and local resources to dedicate to upgrading PSAPs; Wireless providers must upgrade their processes as well. Text to 911 is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Technology already available to wireless consumers has the capability to provide PASAPs and first responders with a treasure trove of data. In an emergency response situation, good data translates to lives saved. Imagine being able to send a text to 911 that an incident has occurred, including a photo of the location and the vehicles or individuals involved. It would take a witness seconds to send the text and would save the PSAP operator from verbally collecting that information over several seconds or minutes. The PSAP operator would immediately know the severity of the situation and could quickly dispatch the appropriate resources. Unfortunately, this scenario exists only in the distant future.
A couple of private organizations are getting creative in an effort to fill the gap left by the lag in PSAP capability. BastaYaPR has developed an app for Android and iPhone. BastaYaPR users in Puerto Rico can receive information from, and communicate information to, local law enforcement including photos, video, and their individual special needs. The company Cuff is creating wearable safety alert devices. The CuffLinc module embeds in Cuff jewelry and can be transferred from piece to piece. A quick press of the CuffLinc module will alert designated people (also Cuff wearers) that a paired CuffLinc has been pressed. Designees can then see the exact location of the “presser” on their iPhone.
Neither BastaYaPR nor Cuff integrate with traditional PSAPs. BastaYaPR reports directly to the closest Puerto Rican police department and Cuff reports to a designated personal network. PSAPs simply don’t have the capability to connect with this type of technology and likely won’t be able to for a long time. But the future of emergency response is clear. Technologies like text to 911, mobile apps, and wearable GPS/ alert systems will vastly improve the data available to first responders. PSAPS will be challenged to reach far beyond simply responding to texts for help. Future PSAPs will be expected to accommodate data-rich requests for emergency assistance.