Lack of cellular service limits 911 growth

Karissa Blackburn kblackburn@civitasmedia.com

July 3, 2014

Texting to 911 seems like a great option… unless you live in southern West Virginia, where texting is not an option for many citizens because of the lack of cellular service.

Verizon Wireless, which is the only company that provides the text-to-911 service, covers 97 percent of the country. Unfortunately, southern W.Va. is still severely lacking in this area. A coverage map shows just how severe the problem is: red marks places that are able to receive enough cellular service to send or receive text messages, but Logan County is only speckled with a few, tiny dots.

Would an investment in the text-to-911 system be worth the cost in Logan?

Cost of the new system varies greatly depending on the population it will serve, but for Logan an estimated cost is between $35,000 and $50,000. At this point, Vermont is the only state to pass the system on a state-level. The total one-time cost for their population of 626,011 citizens was $2,105,000 with a quarterly recurring costs of $469,327 for system maintenance, monitoring, support, upgrades, and data services.

West Virginia’s population is over double that of Vermont’s with 1.8 million citizens.

New Generation 911 cost elements may include:

• Broadband connectivity

• ESInet deployment

• New or upgraded CPE to handle multimedia 911 communications (e.g., text, data, video)

• New system data capabilities (e.g., GIS-based location)

• Personnel/training

County Commissioner Danny Ellis says he understands the idea for this upgrade, but it may not be economically feasible for Logan County because of the lack of cellular service.

“The idea is great, but we have to look at it from the economic perspective as well,” said Ellis. “Most of the folks in our county don’t have access to cellular data. Yeah, it would be great if someone kidnapped you and you could text 911 from the back of the car. But around here, what is the likelihood that the person will be able to get a text to send? We have to look at those elements as commissioners.”

The citizens of Logan have mixed reactions to the implementation of the program. The battle seems to be generational: the older population thinks that voice calls will suffice while the younger generation is gun-ho for text-messages.

“I’m not in favor of this. 911 calls should stay on voice,” said Michael Ellixson.

Research shows that he has a pretty valid point. Even in areas where text-to-911 services are available, voice calls give a much more accurate location for responders.

“I’ve always thought this would be a cool idea. This way I could hide and still be quiet if someone broke in my home,” said 22-year-old Sadie Knight.

The service offers many benefits according to the younger generation, including being great for citizens who have speech or hearing disabilities.

There are a few federal grants available for local areas that hope to pursue the New Generation 911 text services. For example, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 provides $115 million in matching grants to support 911 or NG911 improvements.

Depsite concerns with prices and the lack of cellular service in Logan, 911 Deputy Director Ted Sparks says that this service could be available to Logan Countians as early as next year.

“Whether you like it or you don’t like it, it is coming,” said Sparks. “It’s kind of scary, especially for the older generation. But you look at the younger generation… I hardly talk to my kids anymore. It’s usually a text ‘Happy Father’s Day, Dad’ or something like that. It’s just an accepted form of media now.”

Sparks said when they got their new equipment a few years back, it came Next Gen 911 ready.

“If the service providers were to call us tomorrow and tell us to launch it, we have the capability to do that,” said Sparks.”The County Commission has been really really good about helping us out on any endeavor we did. There will be a price increase but I would not anticipate it to be anything huge.”

As far as cellular service goes, Sparks says that the capabilities might not be where they should be now, but getting the system up and running might push service providers to extend their services.

“You know how Logan is. The internet kinda goes up and down here and there. Cell service is sparse in some areas. So we’re kinda limited with that stuff.”

Sparks says the worst part about texting 911 is that it does not provide full context of the situation like phone calls do.

Location identification is more difficult because of the lack of towers, background noise is not available to help assess the situation and it is impossible to judge the intonation of a person’s voice.

“There’s a lot that we train our dispatchers to do,” said Sparks. “Our dispatchers are trained with red flags. We listen to voice inflections and tone, background noise and things like that. And you make best case decisions on those things that you hear. There’s a lot of information that comes with the hearing part. With text messaging, that kinda goes away.”

With Next Gen 911, the dispatchers will have to be retrained to better understand texting.

“Even with the vernacular,” said Sparks, “One time my son texted me, he’s 20 years old, he sent me a text and I had to call him to translate it because I couldn’t understand it. There’s definitely a generational thing there that we’ll have to adress as far as training our dispatchers.”

Logan County has been a trailblazer with EMS/911 for years, and it seems that transitioning to Next Gen 911 will be no different. Even after Next Gen 911 is implemented, phone calls to 911 will still be accepted.