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911 Texting Capability Still on Hold in Arlington

by Katie Pyzyk February 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm 24 Comments

The matter of keeping up with current technology is prompting county workers to investigate whether Arlington’s 911 system can soon upgrade and add a texting option. While it appears texting eventually will be added to the mix, it isn’t imminent.

“Certainly texting is something we want to get to, especially when someone is in a compromised position where they can’t talk on the phone,” said Arlington County Office of Emergency Management Director Jack Brown. “It’s something I believe is in the future.”

A few communities across the country — such as parts of Tennessee, Iowa, North Carolina and Vermont — have implemented or are experimenting with “Next Generation 911.” The Federal Communications Commission — which in 2010 held a press conference at Arlington’s Emergency Communication Center touting Next Gen 911 technology — announced in December that the top four cell phone carriers in America agreed to speed up the availability of the service, ensuring that 90 percent of the country’s cell phone users would have the capability by May 2014.

Although cell phones will be enabled for emergency texting, few 911 dispatch centers have the ability to receive texts. The Next Gen 911 systems are largely in their infancy and gaps exist to such a degree that officials in Arlington prefer to wait until the technology becomes further perfected.

“We want to put our money and time into the right place the first time,” said Emergency Communications Center (ECC) Deputy Commander Jeff Horwitz. “Prematurely, a resource could be more harmful than waiting to release it. So we’re really nervous about people sending texts to 911 before it’s ready.”

The current programs do not have provisions to allow 911 dispatchers to immediately determine a text sender’s location like they can with a phone call. Some communities moved forward with the texting system even without the ability to pinpoint where an emergency occurred, but Arlington is not willing to take that risk. Additionally, the texting system doesn’t allow dispatchers to determine if a person is quietly awaiting more instructions or if the emergency has resolved itself.

“When you hang up, our system knows you dropped a call. When you text, I don’t know when you’re done. Are you there? Are you being attacked? Are you unconscious? I don’t have any info telling me your call is dropped,” Horwitz said.

Arlington County Emergency Communications CenterPerhaps the most pressing concern surrounding emergency texting is the inability to communicate immediately with callers. Although situations arise in which callers cannot speak to dispatchers, such instances are relatively rare. Typically, dispatchers are able to get more information from callers, soothe them and even offer potentially life saving assistance. It would prove far more difficult for dispatchers to help someone administer CPR, for example, if the person attempted to text while doing chest compressions.

“We really like to be able to talk to the people,” Brown said. “I can just envision someone texting 911 and someone trying to text back instructions. We haven’t worked that out yet.”

Both Horwitz and Brown stressed that implementing a flawed system could prove disastrous. Arlington had a glimpse into the seriousness of a failed 911 system during last year’s derecho, and nobody is interested in repeating that type of scenario.

“There’s a lot of redundancy and diversity to make sure systems maintain continuity of operations. During the derecho we lost a plethora of resources, but had others to make sure it was safe,” Horwitz said. “We spend a lot of time and money and effort to make sure we have redundancy and protection and diversity. We’re going to apply the same approach to texting.”

The county did experiment with texting and tweeting after that storm, encouraging people to get in contact via these alternate means when the phone system went down. But it was viewed more as a last ditch effort, not as a fail-safe measure.

“After the derecho we did get a lot of great info, people texting about lights out. But our fear is that someone would text an emergency and we’d miss it. We’re just not there yet,” Brown said. “We’re responsible for public safety in Arlington and we take it very seriously. When folks can’t get through to 911 that’s dangerous. We are so lucky that somebody didn’t die or there wasn’t a fire or something.”

Another issue brought to the forefront by the derecho is how to handle a potential flood of texts, particularly immediately upon inception of an upgraded 911 system. The ECC handled its highest daily volume of calls in 2012 on the day of the storm (June 29), totaling more than 2,100. Consider, also, that the proliferation of cell phones has created an environment in which the average accident on I-395 or I-66 may generate up to two dozen phone calls to the ECC. Officials point to both examples while expressing worry that the ease of texting may cause an overwhelming response that the system isn’t yet prepared to handle.

“As soon as we open that flood gate, they will text when they could make a phone call, and it could take twice as long to process,” said Horwitz. “Once you tell the public you can text us, you better darn well be able to handle all those text messages. A lot of people ask, ‘I can text my friends and family, why can’t you text 911?’ But if you add all these challenges and variables, it really opens a lot of eyes.”

Eventually, the upgraded system should be able to accept photos and videos along with texts. Still, dispatchers prefer to receive calls and request that when the system goes online residents only text when truly unable to make a phone call.

For now, Arlington’s system will remain as-is while county workers continue researching Next Gen 911, and figure out how to make the concept safe enough to work here.

“Texting was never really part of the 911 infrastructure, it’s really a social networking thing. So we’re playing catch up trying to find a solution. We want to catch up with social media and other tools out there,” Horwitz said. “I wish I had a better answer. But to be honest, the biggest concern is to make sure we do it right the first time.”

  • Arlington

    ECC is so understaffed and underpaid it’s funny, not to mention that they just cut one position. Morale is so low up there that people are quitting in droves before they can be fully trained to take calls and dispatch. How they expect to implement this system anytime in the next few years is beyond me.

    • Your Supervisor, Checking Logs

      Let the quitters quit. Good riddance. No one should be unhappy with their job, and I know plenty of people who would love to fill the job, and not whine about it on the internet during their work for the ECC.

      • Arlington

        That’s the spirit! Instead of a better management environment, let’s just tell people to suck it up. You are correct about people waiting to fill the job. They’re the same people who leave in 6-12 months because the place sucks.

      • drax

        Low morale and high turnover is always good.

        • tce

          Argg matey… the beatings will stop when moral improves…

  • Duh

    ArlCo has higher priorities like the streetcar, waterslides, and firing 20 employees.

    • Danny

      This get funnier every time I read this in every post. Is this an Asperger’s chat room, of Fox Nation?

      • Donna

        WHAT is the comment exactly?

        • snarl

          the endless litany….

      • Donna

        WHAT is this comment exactly?

      • snarl

        not really p c, but funny nonetheless

  • Kelly

    I’d like to Instragram a pic of the trunk the man had locked me in. It’s hard to describe in just 160 characters.

  • novasteve

    Anyone think of the consequences? If the police claim they got a text from you, like with phone calls they can search wherever the phone is, even if there were no actual 911 call under the good faith exception. This will just mean you’ve opened yourselves to more being searched opportunities. Years ago my friends in MD had the police show up, saying they got a 911 and need to search the entire house. They didn’t even have a landline to make the call police claimed they got.

    • snarl

      if you are saying the police are going to fake it, what difference does it make whether you text or voice?

  • Donna

    As the wife of a HoH/deaf man, I appreciate that they are working on this. It’s not just about “keeping up with technology”, it’s about the emergency system/help being accessible to those that cannot use the phone as a means to communicate.
    Now, as per our discussions, if something was to happen to my husband, myself, or our children and either I’m not there to call 911 or am unable to, basically my husband has to call, firmly state that he’s deaf, clearly state our address and situation and hope for the best. NOT a good plan. But the only one that is currently available to him.

  • Tumblebum

    It may seem like a technicality but keep in mind that ECC is no longer a function of the PD or FD. It falls under the responsibility of the County managers office. When it was part of the PD/FD it had long serving, happy employees who were proud to serve. That is no longer the case. It is essentially a place to tell you where else you should call.
    The cops and the firemen are ready and anxious to respond but if they don’t get the call…………………………………………..

    • snarl

      that has been my understanding of the situation also

    • daniel

      That’s the opposite of what I’ve experienced calling 911 (once) or the non emergency number. Of course I’ve met plenty of bitter former County employees with altered senses of reality, so I’m not surprised to see comments like these.

      • Tumblebum

        Your reading comprehension is weak.

  • Twit

    When can I tweet 911?

  • FedUp

    And what percentage of our budget goes towards public safety? And they still cannot seem to figure out how to get their texting capability up and running? Seriously?

    • Narlington

      If you are talking about the overall county budget that goes to public safety it is a small percentage. APS gets 52% of the overall county budget, then the rest of the 48% gets split on the other county agencies. We all know that the new swimming agency in the county is sucking much of that up for the new DC public pool at long bridge, the new trolly agency is working hard to spend the rest on the drunken trolly line on Columbia Pike, as well as the street making smaller agency.

  • An arlington resident created the Stormpins app to allow citizens to have an ECC product themselves. Check out Stormpins.com and download the app for free. After we lost 911 for 4 days last summer we started coding. Use this to bridge the gap until arlington figures out what they want to do.

    We are launching a complete system in 3 major US cities this spring. Try it for free now

  • FedupwithACPD

    I’m not surprised based upon those idiots cops (I utilize that term loosely) that oversee the PD’s budget. Those ‘cops’ in the administrative positions have NO business overseeing such a HUGE budget. But when you are GROSSLY overpaid, a person can get the sense that nothing is beyond their capability.You should see the worthless new gadgets they get and are simply purchased to fulfill their departments’ budgets. The word ‘practical’ isn’t used at ACPD and it’s all at the expense of us the tax payers. I could go on and on with example after example, but there is a different place and frankly those overpaid admin cops aren’t worth it. I wish the county manager would clear out the PD’s ‘top brass’ (6-7 people) and hire cops from outside the PD. Change can be good and its not just my opinion that ACPD needs a TON of change. And that change needs to starts at the top and continue with the little circle of friends (department chiefs). Those guys make way too much money for what their job entails and its the Arlington residents who pay for it. Heck, all of them get take home cars (gas also paid for via the taxpayer) and for what??? They don’t get called off duty to respond to a SWAT call out or homicide like a detective. Some of those admin cops live out in Leesburg, Landover, etc and NEVER have to come into the dept past their normal working hours……so way are the tax payers funding their gas budget?? I know some CEOs of big companies who don’t take their own company cars, much less their gas paid for. And the CEO is one (1) person, not like at ACPD where I’ve been told there are more than 20 unmarked crown vics that are given to ‘admin cops’ and they get to use them just like their own cars. That means they don’t have to pay for parking in Courthouse and the taxpayer puts all the gas they want in the car. But they can’t find a way for those paying for their gas to contact 911/dispatch via a text cell phone message. What a darn waste, the county manager should ashamed at letting the Chief of police allocate the PDs funds as he does. I know from the paper, web, and word of mouth the chief doesn’t have the respect of the dept in general (at least those who aren’t in an admin position) and I would feel the same way. And by ‘admin cop’, I mean like those who get a title of Chief of Detectives. I think the taxpayers and citizens should ask the Chief of Police to justify all those ‘extra’ expenditures that go on within the dept, but from what I heard he is great at ducking such matters or putting the burden on someone else. Come on county manager!!!!! Step up and do your job!!!


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