Tuesday, December 20, 2011

9-1-1 upgrade needed

I have a tendency to view most laws as either an incursion into our freedom, feel-good legislation created to make the lawmaker look good, or both.

Very seldom do I hear an idea for a new bill and say to myself, “How does this not already exist?”
But that’s exactly what happened Friday when I got an email from Congresswoman Kathy Hochul heralding her new bill before Congress, called the Allowing Local Emergency Response Technicians to Accept Cellular Texts Act, or A.L.E.R.T. A.C.T.

In short, when you send a text message to 9-1-1, it doesn’t go anywhere. It just heads out to the ether, never to be heard from again.

Hochul’s bill would push for cellular service providers to alert users who text 9-1-1 that their message did not go through, allowing the party in need to at least know that texting 9-1-1 doesn’t work and help is not on the way. This way, the person in need of help isn’t waiting for nothing.

The bill would also push for funding to go to improve existing 9-1-1 call centers to enable them to receive text messages, so that in the future help would come.

Considering the amount of communication done by the youth of the world, I can’t believe that it’s currently not possible to text 9-1-1. You can text in your vote to “American Idol,” but you can’t text for help if you’re in trouble.


I’m not an engineer, so I certainly don’t understand the complexity of the cellular industry or phone service. I’m sure, though, that 9-1-1 call centers are even more complex than cell phones.

However, it seems apparent to me that our nation’s emergency response infrastructure should get with the times and add texting capabilities so that people who are unable to call 9-1-1 could text the system and get the help they obviously need.

It’s not 1991 anymore. Cell phones are not an extravagance. They are the norm now. I know more and more people all the time who are forgoing their home phone service and going with cellular only.
I also know more and more people who use text as their primary means of communication. On any given day, I may get a handful of phone calls and more than 100 text messages.

So adding texting capabilities to 9-1-1 is a necessity. And until that happens, asking cellular providers to inform their customers that their text did not go through is something those cellular providers should do — with or without the A.L.E.R.T. A.C.T. in place.

The next step, in my opinion, would be to allow Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, services to call 9-1-1. Anyone with a Magic Jack, Skype or Vonage phone simply can’t call 9-1-1.

Again, I’m not an engineer, so I don’t fully understand the difficulty, but I know that when people need help, we as society should make it possible for them to get that help.

I’m rooting for Kathy Hochul on this one. Her bill isn’t intrusive and it’s meaningful. Sure, it will cost money — to both local police departments and the cellular industry — but that money may actually save lives.