NASHVILLE - Tennessee's 911 dispatch centers soon will be installing digital equipment capable of receiving texts, but officials say it may be a while before the system works effectively.
Tennessee is one of several states working to install the Next Generation 911 statewide. Besides texting, the new system also will allow picture and video messages. Installation is scheduled to begin next month and is expected to be completed within 12 to 18 months.
Duane Phillips works at a 911 center in Tennessee. He told WPLN-FM that 911 is a 10-digit number like everything else, "so when you dial 911 it actually goes to the phone company who reverts that to us over our 10-digit number."
Officials said getting a text message to make that sort of conversion is up to phone companies that offer messaging services. There are 14 of them in Tennessee and nearly 200 nationwide.
Rex Hollaway, who directs technical services for Tennessee's 911 system, said emergency texting should be uniform across state lines. He said that means state agencies and phone companies getting on the same page.
However, Chris Walker, director of public affairs for AT&T in Tennessee, said texting never was meant to be used for an emergency.
"It's easy to send a text and say, 'I'm picking up groceries,"' he said. "But if that message doesn't get through, it's not life-threatening."
Many emergency officials wonder if the Federal Communications Commission will need to step in to make new mandates for cell phone companies before the new system will work.
"We're not even sure if we are going to regulate 911, if we are going to regulate texting or if texting will play a role in NG911," said Patrick Donovan, an attorney in the FCC's 911 rules division. "We certainly hope it will."