Cost Among Reasons 911 Texting System Not Available In Arizona

May 19, 2014

Flagstaff only banned texting while driving.

The country’s four major wireless carriers have made text-to-911 systems available to select states and cities, but Arizona isn’t quite ready for the emergency messages.

The state does not have the technology at the dispatch centers in place and it is expensive to install.

Currently the centers have an analog system from the 1980s, but in order to communicate via text they would need an Internet Protocol, or IP, system. Maricopa 911 administrator Liz Graeber said changing the infrastructure will be expensive and the county doesn’t have the money.

The 911 fund is collected on a monthly basis through your phone bill, cell phone or landline and is 20 cents a month. Graeber said that amount is one of the lowest in nation.  Arizona is a cost-recovery state, which means some wireless companies charge for the 911 services they provide. The text-to-911 system would be convenient for the general public, but it is critical for the hearing impaired.

“Texting really changed my whole world,” said Beca Baily, who is deaf. “My husband and son are deaf as well so we rely heavily on texting to communicate with one another for short or lengthy conversations.”

People who are hearing impaired have a few options for calling 911 centers. There is a teletype system much like texting but it runs through a landline, thus limiting where someone can use it. Bailey now uses a video calling system, which she said makes communication doable but not easy.

“I have to register in advance physical location within system. So then if call emergency video relay center, they have that information about the physical location. So when I dial 911 through that system they are able to relay that information.” 

Bailey said a few years ago she was in a car accident where she was not able to quickly get help.

“I was able to connect with operator at a 911 center, but right after hello it started to drop the call over and over again.” She said she didn’t know if anyone was coming. “Finally with what seemed like a time span of two hours an officer showed up to assist me.”
 
Graeber said the nearly 90 dispatch centers in the state operate just barely on the budget.

“And that’s money to keep lights on so to speak. It pays the monthly bills for networking, it pays for maintenance that you have to have 24/7,” said Graeber.

 She said right now there is no funding for the nearly $10 million that would be needed in system upgrades. Graeber said another fear is the increasing incoming call or text volume.

“So let’s say that there is an incident on cardinal stadium and everyone grabs their phones to start texting, reality is could have 500 messages come through which would overwhelm a center,” Graeber said.

The 911 centers are preparing for the eventual implementation of the texting system by upgrading the technology they can. Graeber said the centers are working to install fiber at different centers and switching to IP-based calling systems. Until the entire infrastructure is changed, this is all the centers can do to prepare.