Let me state this succinctly: if you are in an emergency, do NOT try to contact police, fire, or ambulance services using text messages or instant messaging. There is no guarantee those messages are going to reach public safety dispatch centers in a timely manner, and your location will NOT be communicated with the message.

Communicating this warning was the point of a recent 4G Americas’ press release and white paper titled Texting to 9-1-1: Examining the Design and Limitations of SMS. (Andrew Solutions is a board member of 4G Americas, FYI.) The white paper presents a view of the capabilities, limitations, threats, and vulnerabilities of using text communications for 9-1-1 notification in the U.S.

Be safe! Call 911. Don't Text!

Many communities and public safety organizations have been researching this issue. The concern is that some disabled citizens might be unable to speak to emergency dispatchers on the phone. Texting is being looked at to see if it could be a supportable, viable alternative.

Despite the enormous popularity and usage of texting, it has always been supported by operators only with vacant network capacity. Voice calls take up available capacity first. That means that in areas where network capacity is full, text messages are delayed until capacity is freed up by a decrease in mobile calls. That is why sometimes text messages do not appear immediately on your phone when someone sends you one, but a few hours or even a day later. In an emergency, time is of the essence, so text messages are an unreliable means of trying to contact emergency services.

Equally important is the fact that no location information is tied to a text message, unlike with mobile phone calls. When a wireless call comes into a public safety center, the dispatcher receives location information automatically. (Location information is what Andrew’s GeoLENs® Location Solution enables in wireless networks, FYI.) But no location information is tied to text messages, so nothing gets delivered automatically to the dispatcher. That means in the best scenario, a texter would need to provide that info—and do it accurately. In emergencies or with network delays, however, that is not always possible.

The lesson here: if you’re in an emergency, continue to call the emergency services number, such as 9-1-1. Do not rely on text.

About the Author

John Baker

John Baker is vice president and general manager, Network Solutions, for Andrew Solutions, a division of CommScope, Inc. In this role, Mr. Baker oversees a group that supplies location, test and measurement, spectrum management, and other RF site solutions to the wireless industry. Prior to joining Andrew Corporation in August 2004, Mr. Baker held senior positions with leading wireless companies including vice president of PCS/DCS Base Stations at Nokia and vice president of technology and chief technology officer at Pacific Bell Mobile Systems. Mr. Baker also contributed significantly in the development of the GSM standards. He graduated with an honors degree in electrical and electronic engineering from Loughborough University, Leicestershire, UK.

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1 comment for "An Important Message About Emergency Texting"
Chris Pearson

Great blog on a very serious and pertinent issue. It is essential that the greater public and public safety agencies understand that for reliable emergency services communications CALLING 9-1-1 is THE SOLUTION to get help. The Public Safety Answering Points where voice 9-1-1 calls are received are staffed with professionally trained personnel that fully understand and respond to your voice 9-1-1 calls. Today, SMS texting is used as a mainstream communications technology as people talk less and text more, but SMS is actually not real time and should not be relied upon in emergencies. I personally, would never want anyone in my family relying on texting for their safety and well being. USE WHAT WORKS-----Call 9-1-1 in an Emergency! Also, it is important to note that 4G Americas is committed to looking for new and innovative solutions for people with disabilities a group that is looking for new and creative alternatives to todays emergency communications systems. Thanks again for highlighting this important issue. Be safe! Chris

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