New Maryland system will allow 911 requests via text messages

Maryland residents who are deaf or have speech disabilities — or anyone with a reason to ask for help silently — could soon use their cellphones to send and receive 911 requests by text.

The state Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to approve a $2.4 million contract that will allow emergency responders across Maryland to receive and respond to 911 texts.


The two-year contract with Annapolis-based TeleCommunications Systems Inc. takes effect March 1. Counties that choose to join the systems could have 911 texts operating as soon as May.

Gov. Larry Hogan called the technology “a vital public safety tool that could potentially help save the lives of citizens who find themselves in an emergency situation.”


Renata S. Seergae, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the system is intended primarily for callers with hearing or speech disabilities, but could also be useful in emergencies when callers do not want to be overheard by others.

Kelby Brick, director of the Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said “we are thrilled to welcome this public safety tool for Maryland’s 1.2 million deaf and hard of hearing residents, those with a speech impairment, and anyone in an emergency situation where a voice call would be dangerous or impossible.”

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The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 70 percent of all 911 calls come from cellular phones. The text-to-911 service allows messages of up to 160 characters. It cannot handle photos or videos.

The contract will help expand a five-year-old pilot program in Frederick County to the rest of the state. The county, which is home to the Maryland School for the Deaf, started accepting 911 texts from Verizon customers in 2013, and expanded to all major carriers two years later.

“We really think it’s wonderful that it’s going to roll out statewide,” said Jack Markey, Frederick County’s director of emergency management. “It’s a good additional tool for us to have in the arsenal when people need to reach us.”

Markey said texts are a backup to traditional 911 calls. Often, he said, a person taking a call can gather valuable information from what they hear, such as the inflection of the caller’s voice. Officials urge people to “call if you can, text if you must.”

When a caller dials 911 on a landline, the telephone grid routes the call to the correct dispatch center, and the 911 system tells the dispatcher the caller's address, which helps emergency responders get to the scene. But a cell phone tries to connect to the nearest cell tower, which might or might not be in the caller's jurisdiction. And cell phone technology does not always provide a caller's precise location to a 911 system.

A significant challenge with current text-to-911 technology is that the call center can’t determine the person’s exact location, Markey said.

“That was one of the things we had to explain to people — you still have to tell us where you are,” he said.

Nationwide, roughly a third of U.S. counties have text-to-911 capabilities, according to the National Emergency Number Association. Many of those have started using the technology only within the past few years, said Trey Forgety, the association’s director of government affairs and information security issues.

“We expect that to increase pretty quickly over the next couple of years,” he said.

People have texted 911 when they were hiding in closet or stuck in the trunk of a car, he said.

“It really helps in the most critical situations where someone can’t make a voice call — or where doing so would be unsafe,” he said.

An investigation by the U.S. federal telecom regulator says about 12,600 callers couldn't reach 911 directly from their cellphones during a five-hour AT&T outage on March 8.

Some 911 officials have worried they would be inundated with texts or unable to understand the meaning of abbreviations and emojis, he said. But now, “enough 911 centers have implemented text, and talked about it to their peers, that the level of fear, uncertainty and doubt are coming down.”

Markey said texts are only a small fraction of overall requests to the Frederick County 911 system. During the average month, the county gets between two and three dozen texts out of about 8,000 total requests, Markey said. Those who text tend to be younger people.

Kevin Kinnally, a policy associate with the Maryland Association of Counties, said counties are looking forward to getting text-to-911 capabilities.

But he said there is a broader issue to tackle: a need for the state to transition to a system called Next Generation 911. The Internet-based system would help improve location accuracy, prevent misrouting of calls and let callers send video and other multimedia messages to call centers.

The association is supporting legislation in the General Assembly that would establish a commission to study how to best advance Next Generation 911 across Maryland.

“Right now the problem is we are using technology that was developed in the landline era,” Kinally said.

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