County smart to ride texting-to-911 wave

info@islandpacket.comFebruary 20, 2013 

With so many smartphones in our collective hands, it only makes sense to improve how we can use them to get help in an emergency.

It's a logical next step, and we're glad to see Beaufort County moving to take better advantage of technology many of us have with us all day, every day.

The Federal Communications Commission announced in December a partnership with four major wireless carriers to make it possible for cellphone users to send text and data messages to 911 emergency dispatchers.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon will help establish industry standards and launch the services in some parts of the country this year. The wireless carriers have signed an agreement to make emergency texting available to more than 90 percent of American cellphone users by May 15, 2014.

But the wireless carriers are a first step. Emergency dispatch centers must be able to receive text messages from the public. The "Next Generation 911" initiative calls for a nationwide Internet-protocol-based system to deliver multimedia 911 calls.

Beaufort County is among the first local governments in South Carolina to pursue that technology.

The county is close to signing a 10-year contract with Hargray Communications for fiber-optic services that would be the backbone of the new system. The cost is $19,752 a month over the next decade.

County Council could award the contract as soon as Monday. Funding for the fiber-optic services and new electronic equipment needed to run the network would come from a state fund of monthly 911 surcharges on customers' phone bills, county officials say.

The existing system shows dispatchers a caller's phone number and address if it's a land-line phone. For a cellphone, it gives an approximate location.

The FCC says the texting, photo and video capabilities should be a big help to people who are in situations where calling might be dangerous and to people with speech and hearing disabilities.

The agency plans to have carriers send a bounce-back text to someone sending a message that doesn't go through. That will be important during the transitional phase before the service is available everywhere. BusinessWeek reports that the four carriers will implement the bounce-back capability across their networks by June 30.

Land-line caller ID and cellphone locators greatly boosted the effectiveness of emergency calls; no longer did dispatchers have to rely on people under stress to get accurate information about their locations. That's especially important in an area with millions of visitors a year who are far from familiar territory.

Texting and data capabilities should provide another big boost.

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