Eugene Driscoll file photo

It is not possible on today’s wireless networks to send text messages to 911 dispatchers, however, the Connecticut Department of Public Safety is busy working on a new system that would support this kind of emergency call.

The issue of texting 911 became a topic of discussion after Fox 61 employee, Alice Morrin was shot and killed by her husband this past June. Morrin was afraid that her husband would hear her talking to a dispatcher if she were to call 911 and so she texted a friend for help. The friend called the local police, but as they arrived on the scene shots were fired and both Morrin and her husband, who had killed himself, were found dead.

With a story like this in mind, Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, is now considering introducing legislation to upgrade the state’s 911 system and make it possible to text message 911 dispatchers directly.

At an informational forum held Wednesday by the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, representatives from AT&T, Verizon, and the Department of Public Safety discussed the feasibility of having an emergency response system where citizens could send text messages to 911.

Peter White, executive director of public policy at AT&T made it clear during the forum that the way text messaging is set up now, it would not be able to effectively support texting 911. The system we have today, he said, was designed in the 80s as a way to make use of space on wireless networks that wasn’t being utilized.

White pointed out that because of the simplicity of text messaging, there are many shortcomings to texting 911. Information such as the location of the text message sender or a call back number can’t be transmitted with a typical text message.

Other issues with a text messaging system, White added, would be the vulnerability to prank callers. Texting 911 would enable spammers to send many text messages all at once without any indication that they are all being sent from the same person. Should these kinds of pranks be possible, emergency resources would be diverted away from the real emergencies. 

There is also no way of prioritizing text messages sent to 911 the way calls sent to 911 are prioritized, said White. Calls have the advantage of providing emergency responders with location, a call back number, security, and the call gets directly routed to an emergency dispatcher.

It’s because of all this that “voice is the way to go,” said White.

Though the current emergency response network in Connecticut can’t support texting 911, Public Safety Commissioner John A. Danaher III, says that the necessary upgrades are already underway. The project, called the Public Safety Data Network, will consist of a new fiber optic network that will connect all the Public Safety Answer Points (PSAPs) in the state.

Dargan projects that by the first quarter of 2011, 111 sites will be connected by the new fiber optic network and by the fourth quarter 911 text messaging will be operable.

The new network will have the ability to handle a much larger volume of data transmission that will easily allow the sending of text messages, videos and still images to emergency dispatchers.

Right now the system can only support 1.5 megabytes of data. The future system will be able to accommodate 4 or 5 terabytes of information. That’s around the same amount of information held in the library of congress, said Danaher.

The new 911 system does come with a price tag. The total expense over ten years will be $58 million. This number might see lofty, but Danaher stated that if the system is not changed it would end up costing the state $137 million, that’s $79 million more than if the system is upgraded.

Even after the necessary upgrades are made the other half of the project would be the development by wireless carriers of cell phones that have the capability of transmitting the information that the upgraded PSAPs would be able to receive.

White said that it would most likely not be possible for wireless carriers to develop this kind of technology within the same time frame as the Department of Public Safety’s plan. Because of this, it will probably be later than 2011 before texting 911 is an option.