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Fidel Figures it Out: Can you text 911?

By Steve Fidel | Posted - Jan. 6, 2012 at 10:30 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — Over the past few Friday nights, I've tried to figure out things — answers to questions about everything from correct grammar to legal U-turns. Now people are enlisting me to help with their questions.

Mark Shanks wrote: "I have always wondered with today's technology, can you text 911? Say you have an emergency, say someone broke into your home and you can't talk or the intruder will find you."


I have always wondered with today's technology, can you text 911? Say you have an emergency, say someone broke into your home and you can't talk or the intruder will find you.

–Mark Shanks


The short answer is no. In most parts of the country, if you send a text on an older-model cellphone, it's not going to end up at your local police dispatch center. That will change, but it will take some time.

911 has been around a long time — since 1968, actually. But the technology hasn't changed much.

"The system was tweaked to accommodate wireless 911, but it is still voice-centric," said William Harry, executive director of Valley Emergency Communications Center in West Valley City.

The current systems don't have the bandwidth or equipment to support texting or video, but the next generation of 911 will.

The push for change started after victims during 2007's Virginia Tech shooting were unable to text 911 law enforcement officials.

"They brought to the front — brought to the FCC and the policy makers and safety entities — that testing had to be included," Harry explained.

He says Utah is still several years away from implementing a statewide system. "One of the things that keeps texting from being a viable 911 method is that texting now, there is no guaranteed delivery," he said.

Got a question?
If you've got something you'd like Steve Fidel to figure out, email him at sfidel@ksl.com.

Ever receive a text from someone hours or even days after they sent it? Texters also sometimes use shorthand that people understand differently or not at all.

"Just like some parents don't understand what their kids are texting, the same confusion could happen when someone is under duress," Harry said.

The ability to better locate people who call from a cell phone is also a high priority. Facebook, Twitter and Apple can track your every move. New Generation 911 will give dispatchers similar tools.

And back to the question "what if you can't talk?"

"If it's an open line and there is no response, they can ask questions to the person and give them instructions (like,) ‘Are you in jeopardy? Press one,'" Harry said.

Mark Shanks, I hope that answers your question. If anybody else has something they'd like me to figure out, email me at sfidel@ksl.com.

We are looking for creative questions that will lead to interesting adventures. I'll even take some of you along for the ride.

Email: sfidel@ksl.com

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