Why Can’t You Text 9-1-1?

9-1-1 needs to move into the Internet era.

In today’s Internet-enabled world, most people take for granted their ability to communicate with just about anyone, anywhere, and by any number of means – voice, text, email or through social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

But one essential communications service remains largely trapped in the landline era: 9-1-1.

In many parts of the United States, 9-1-1 is still rooted in the landline-telephone-based infrastructure that gave the system its start in 1968. The texts, videos, images and data now integral to rapid-fire modern communications are beyond the capacity of most 9-1-1 systems. While a concerned citizen could snap a photo of a fleeing suspect on her smartphone and post it to Facebook, she likely can’t share that same photo with a 9-1-1 dispatcher. As of November 2014, just 152 counties in 18 U.S. states even had the capability for citizens to text to 9-1-1.

But a few jurisdictions – such as Iowa and Vermont – have made the leap to Internet-enabled 9-1-1, known as “Next Generation 9-1-1.” The potential rewards include not just better public safety but cost savings in the long run.

In late 2014, Iowa launched “Alert Iowa,” a two-way emergency “mass notification” system – among the first of its kind in the United States – that allows citizens and the state’s 9-1-1 to talk to each other using social media, text and email.

“The traditional way of using 9-1-1 when someone has something to report is very closed and one-way,” says Iowa state Senator and firefighter Jeff Danielson, who led the effort to enact Alert Iowa. “A citizen calls in, they give the information, they hang up, and nothing more is done. Under mass notification, the dispatch centers can then push that information out on Facebook, Twitter, text and email, engaging the public to give us more information about what’s going on.”

For Danielson, a particularly brutal local tragedy drove home the limits of the traditional 9-1-1 system and prompted his efforts for reform. In July 2012, cousins Lyric Cook-Morrisey and Elizabeth Collins, ages 10 and 8, went missing while on a bike ride near their home in Evansdale, Iowa. The girls were found murdered five months later, but their killer remains at large.

Danielson is convinced the girls might have had a better chance at rescue had Alert Iowa been available.

“If there had been a more rapid way to inform the public of where the girls were and what they were doing,” Danielson says, “We could have engaged the eyes and ears of the community much better through a two-way process.”

In 2009, the U.S. federal government issued a blueprint for a national transition to the kind of Internet-based 9-1-1 that Iowa now has. In addition to better, faster, two-way information-sharing between citizens and emergency services providers, Internet-based 9-1-1 offers other advantages, such as better location information for callers.

Another benefit is interoperability with state and national emergency response systems. As the government’s report finds, “With IP-enabled 9-1-1, the physical location of a PSAP [Public Safety Answering Point] becomes immaterial.” In the event of a mass catastrophe, for example, the ability “to transfer 9-1-1 calls within and among jurisdictions along with all collected data provides resilience that currently does not exist, but that may be essential in the event of call overload or PSAP damage.”

In Iowa, where the new 9-1-1 system operates off a single statewide platform, this interoperability extends to state agencies such as the homeland security department, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Transportation and the Iowa State Patrol as well as local police, fire and emergency medical services.

A single platform also means lower costs. Despite the need for initial investments to build out infrastructure, the federal government’s report estimated that Internet-enabled 9-1-1, under some scenarios, could save as much as $19 billion over 20 years in comparison to the current system.

But according to the 2014 National 911 Progress Report, only 15 states have even adopted a plan to transition to Next Generation 9-1-1. Given its obvious benefits, why hasn’t the transition to Internet-based 9-1-1 happened more quickly?

One significant hurdle is governance. Most 9-1-1 systems in the United States are managed at the local level, which complicates coordination and implementation. Iowa alone, for example, has 115 dispatch centers, each of which were essentially self-contained – with its own software and systems – until the deployment of Alert Iowa’s statewide platform.

In a 2013 report, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued recommendations for the legal and regulatory framework that would best support a national transition to Next Generation 9-1-1. It cited as current obstacles such factors as state regulations that hamper the ability of individual PSAPs to implement Internet-based 9-1-1; the lack of incentives to encourage adoption; the absence of liability protection to encourage innovation and rapid deployment; the lack of consistent national standards; gaps in both federal and state authority to implement and regulate Next Generation 9-1-1; and lack of clarity over the respective state and federal roles in an integrated system.

Another barrier is funding. Many jurisdictions primarily support 9-1-1 through landline telephone fees, which have been declining as more users move to mobile. In Iowa, state senator Danielson waged a two-year campaign to impose fees on wireless and prepaid phones. “Our entire 911 dispatch center revenue stream was based on landlines,” said Danielson. But by equalizing the fees on all users, the state eventually raised $3.7 million, which funded the implementation of Alert Iowa.

Many states also divert what 9-1-1 fees they collect to other purposes. The FCC reports that states diverted more than $183 million – roughly 8 percent of the fees collected in 2013 – to purposes other than 9-1-1, including to their general-fund budgets or to pay down debt. At the same time, states also only spent 4.5 percent of the 9-1-1 fees they collected on investments to deploy Next Generation 9-1-1.

Two emerging developments, however, have the potential to kick-start a push toward 9-1-1 reform. The first is the U.S. federal government’s new efforts to develop a nationwide public safety broadband network, FirstNet. As this system approaches deployment, questions of governance, interoperability with state 9-1-1 systems and performance will become increasingly urgent.

The second is politics. So far, police, fire and other first responders have been insulated from the public’s widespread mistrust of and cynicism about government. But so long as a service as basic as 9-1-1 remains on the brink of obsolescence, that trust will also inevitably erode – and perhaps justifiably so.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Public Sector Digest.