Why 50 million people can't call 911

For the deaf community, texting to 911 can be their lifeline. But in nine out of 10 centers, it's not available.

Why 50 million people can't call 911

Over 50 million deaf citizens cant use their smartphone to call 911.

Credit: Mark J. Fletcher, ENP

Undoubtedly, the most common method used to contact emergency services is simply calling 911. While that will work just fine for most of us, for the 50 million citizens in the U.S. who are deaf, are deaf-blind or have a speech disability, dialing 911 on the phone is not an option.

Think about that for a second. You are deaf and experiencing a medical emergency, or witnessing one, and you can't report it, at least not in a timely or efficient manner.

Wait—didn’t we solve this problem decades ago?

Sort of, but as it turns out, not completely. It is true that in the 1960s scientist Robert Weitbrecht proposed the use of surplus recycled Teletype (TTY) machines for communications devices for the deaf. The TTYs were modified to allow the use of acoustic couplers, which made them easy to attach to any telephone receiver. The BAUDOT tones that they transmitted could be carried as audio on phone lines. And despite the machines being not very portable, for the first time a deaf person could reach out and communicate over phone lines.

That solved the problem to a degree, but a major drawback remained. Anyone wanting to use this technology could only communicate with a person who also owned a TTY device. This limited the scope of the calling party to a few select resources.

With advances in hardware technology, device transportability became less of a problem, and the 1970s and 1980s saw a significant redesign of these devices. The incorporation of modern electronics and rudimentary firmware logic allowed TTYs to become more compact and include functions such as memory and speed-dialing.

The distribution of units increased as various state entities advocated for the deaf and hard of hearing community and began to support equipment distribution programs, many of which still exist. Deaf users would be subsidized, making TTY technology affordable to a wider community base.

Despite those efforts, TTY development and advancement came to an abrupt halt, and then stagnated over the next 30 years. Meanwhile we saw incredible advances in other forms of personal communications technology used by the general public.

Why didn’t TTY technology flourish?

Even though TTY’s weren’t convenient to operate, their use and deployment was widespread, primarily as the result of requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990. TITLE I of the law mandated that any employer with 15 or more employees could not discriminate against any person who has a disability. Furthermore, TITLE III of the act required that a business of any size ensure that any individual who has a disability has equal access to all the business has to offer a customer who doesn't have a disability.

In 2007 the smartphone was introduced, with Apple, Microsoft and Google all introducing solutions. Wireless carriers expanded with data plans and capabilities, as well as the internet connectivity that would accompany it. This was probably the main reason TTY use plummeted. Devices that could use SMS, text message, and the proprietary iMessage and FaceTime protocols have all brought ubiquitous multimedia communications to the masses. Apps have allowed services such as high-definition video relay calling to be provided to people who are deaf, are deaf blind or have speech disabilities, making the smartphone the device of choice for more and more people.

What about emergency calls?

While communicating with nearly anyone on the planet is only a click away, when it comes down to life safety issues and reaching officials at 911 centers, the legacy network once again stands in the way, blocking any possibility for direct access from these devices and the ability to use any multimedia capability. Think of it like trying to videoconference with that 1973 Harvest Gold, rotary dial wall phone that used to hang in your kitchen. Not going to happen.

The 911 network itself is the very thing that keeps public safety agencies from using these new modalities of communications—and the problem is not a new one. This same issue has suffocated the industry for decades, preventing use of an intelligent, multimedia-capable, data-centric, network-connecting public safety agencies with the public they are charged with protecting.

As I have written many times in the past, the current 911 architecture in the U.S. is an antiquated, analog-based infrastructure capable of providing a single mode of communications: voice.

Even now, with carriers and public safety answering points (PSAPs) committed to rolling out Text to 911 services, it’s evident by the lack of implementations that progress is moving at a snail’s pace. In fact, according to the FCC report on PSAP Text to 911 Readiness, less than 10 percent of the counties have implemented the service, despite all major wireless carriers making this technology available through several mechanisms, requiring minimal effort on behalf of the PSAPs.

Text to 911 PSAP Readiness Status July 2016 Mark J. Fletcher, ENP

The current status of 911 PSAP deployments of Text to 911 services as reported to the FCC Public Safety Homeland Security Bureau.

Are we building the wrong technology?

Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems will utilize an IP-based Emergency Services IP Network, also known as an ESInet. While it is politically correct to use the term "migrate," in reality, the cutover to NG911 will be a flash cut, and transitional networks are there only to work out the policy and procedures required. This is why the Text to 911 solutions being deployed now are destined to be short lived. These networks, despite being new, are not deemed as "NENA i3 compliant—the adopted standard that designates the NG911 network from a functional and operational perspective.

Does that mean the existing Text to 911 network is a waste of time and money? No, I am clearly NOT saying that. What I am saying is that what we have for Text to 911 is not the end state goal of the NENA i3 NG911 network, and we need to continue to strive towards a goal that will include better accuracy. The FCC even warns on their FAQ Page about location concerns with Text to 911 today:

“Texting to 911 is different from making a voice call to 911 in this respect. When you make a voice call to 911, the call taker will typically receive your phone number and your approximate location automatically. This is called "Enhanced 911" or "E911." However, in most cases when you text 911 from a wireless phone, the call taker will not receive this automated information. For this reason, if you send a text message to 911, it is important to give the 911 call taker an accurate address or location as quickly as possible, if you can.”

While we navigate this transitional phase of emergency communications, public safety officials everywhere remind us that the safe move continues to be:

CALL IF YOU CAN — TEXT IF YOU CAN’T

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