Philly Working to Update 911 System to Receive Text Messages

Meanwhile, Camden County has just implemented a system to accept 911 texts. | Jane Kelly | Jane Kelly

Soon, you may be able to text-to-911 across the Philly region. Philadelphia County is on its way to having a much improved 911 system which includes the ability to send and receive text messages. Montgomery, Bucks and Chester counties in Pennsylvania have had the service for some time, and yesterday, Camden County unveiled its own text-to-911 service.

Philadelphia’s project is part of Next Generation 911 (NG911), a government program that is working with municipalities big and small to help in the transition to more effective technology systems. But the transition doesn’t happen overnight.

According to the National 911 Program’s website, “While the technology to implement NG911 systems is available now, the transition to NG911 involves much more than just new computers. Implementing NG911 will include activities of many people, who will coordinate efforts to plan and deploy a continually evolving system of hardware, software, standards, policies, protocols and training.”

According to Charles Brennan, Mayor Kenney’s Chief Information Officer, the transition will cost millions of dollars and take about 18 months to implement.

He told Philadelphia magazine that Philadelphia has been slow to implement a text message system because, until Act 12 (aka House Bill 911), which established the 911 fund, passed the Pennsylvania legislature in June 2015, finding the money to fund the system had been difficult as the city does not provide funds. Now, a surcharge of $1.65 per phone line will be imposed and used to fund the program. According to Brennan, Philadelphia receives one out of three of all emergency calls in Pennsylvania, making the process highly complex: Missing even one call is not an option. Currently, the Philadelphia is in negotiations with a potential vendor that will allow the city’s dispatch centers to receive and respond to text messages.

As part of NG911, Philadelphia also has to meet certain requirements regarding its geographic information system (GIS). Right now, the system can, for example, figure out where a person is located, but it cannot tell that they are on, say, the 30th floor of the building. According to Brennan, the city is working on a project with Cyclomedia, a Dutch company that allow customers to use its “images as maps in which they can easily pinpoint the exact location of objects, identify objects automatically and calculate the dimensions of the objects selected,” which will allow police and 911 staffers to determine the exact location — or floor — of a person in need of help. The maps are always updated, so police do not have to rely on Google Maps images that may be out-of-date to determine an exact location, Brennan added.

Philadelphia is also working on replacing the dispatch center consoles that radio out to firefighters and police. The consoles will be replaced so that the centers can better handle calls and send out information quickly. So far, 3,000 radios have been replaced in time for the Democratic Nation Convention this month. Brennan did not have an exact number of dispatch radios in Philadelphia’s system, though he suggested that there are more that need to be replaced.

In various counties surrounding Philadelphia, the 911 text message option has been available since 2015, but it also took time despite the difference in population size between Philadelphia County and its surrounding areas.

In Bucks County, for example, the process to implement a text message system took about three months, but carriers had six months to deploy after the request had been made, according to Todd Neumann, Bucks County’s deputy director of 911 Technology.

“We deployed in August of 2015 to ensure direct access to the hard-of-hearing and deaf community,” Neumann said. “The then-current method was using a [Text Telephone or] TTY device which is old technology that many no longer have. The other targeted use is for life safety reasons were when a voice call would endanger the caller such as a domestic violence or active shooter scenario.” During the Pulse shooting, many of the victims texted family members to call 911 instead of contacting the police directly because a text message option was not available.

In 2015, Bucks County emergency services received 642,297 total phone calls, of which 237,967 were 911 calls and and 158 were 911 texts. In 2016 so far, the County has received 307,771 total calls, of which 113,138 were 911 calls and 216 were 911 texts.

Still, there are drawbacks to the text message system. Neumann noted that, similar to wireless calls, text messages do not provide as accurate location information as landline calls do. He also noted another big drawback: “only SMS text messages are supported by the wireless carriers [meaning] that MMS messages, group messages and attachments like pictures or video, will be blocked or stripped down to a single recipient and no attachments.” Brennen, however, noted that the ability to send digital content may soon be possible.

In Montgomery County, the text message system was available beginning June 20, 2015, for all Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile users, but the County, like Bucks, is still encouraging calling over texting so that information can be received quickly.

Perhaps most important is an update that will affect the counties contiguous to Philadelphia. Often, callers who are trying to reach a dispatch center in their area using their cell phones are directed to the wrong County because they hit a cell tower that is not considered to be in their area. According to Brennen, it will be possible for 911 staffers to record the information of a specific caller and redirect them to the correct dispatcher without causing the caller to repeat his or her story.

Ultimately, “it’s important to understand that ‘text 911’ is only a very small part of NG911,” Brennen said. To him, this system that will allow for staffers to quickly send a call to another dispatch center in a neighboring county is part of the backbone that will help send the text messages and keep everyone safe.