You know, sometimes you’ve just gotta call 911. But all that talking; it’s such a damned pain. Sure, there’s a guy beating another guy to a pulp in the movie theater. But come on, people are trying to watch a movie! They don’t want to hear you blabbering away on your phone!
Fortunately for the folks of Black Hawk County, Iowa, their local 911 center is now taking reports via SMS. On first thought, it’s a great idea. With even a moment of consideration, however, the idea falls apart. Sorry, Black Hawk, folk: this is a bad, bad idea. While there are a handful of great reasons for 911 centers to accept text messages (alerting 911 without alerting criminals, for example. It might also help deaf/mute callers, though 911 has accepted TTD andTTY calls for quite a while now), there are so many glaring flaws with this plan that it’s absurd.
Here’s just a few:
- Time matters: As any emergency responder (or anyone with half a brain, really) could tell you, every second counts in an emergency. Texts are fantastic for casual chat, but they’re horrendous for time crucial conversation. Between typing, connecting, transfer across the network, and transmission to the other device, a single line of dialogue can easily take 30 seconds.
- It’s one county: Unless you just so happen to spot the little sign on the freeway letting you know you’ve entered a new county, there’s no way of knowing which county you’re in. Exit the county unknowingly, and you’re texting a non-SMS friendly 911 line. Even if the line auto-responds telling you the current county emergency line can’t handle texts, that’s at least one minute wasted. How many people in Iowa will read about this and skip right over the “Black Hawk County” part, and waste crucial time trying to text their emergencies?
- Text messages aren’t dependable: If the network gobbles up your tweet, it’s no big deal. If the network gobbles up your attempt at telling 911 that your friends head is on fire, it’s kind of a big deal. When you’ve established a voice connection, you know that the person on the other end got your alert unless they’re shouting “Hello?” repeatedly. With texts, there is no immediate way to know if your message has been received
- Location verification: Verifying location and other details is already a pain when dealing with cell phones. Slow down communication and add a bunch of points for failure, and it becomes a big, hot mess.
For this plan to work, it needs to be rolled out nation-wide (or state-wide, at least). Additionally, the SMS protocol needs to be modified to prioritize 911 texts, and to automatically confirm the receipt of the alert. In other words, it’s no small task.
If this were for non-emergency calls, that’s fine. Mr. Mittens can stay up in the tree for a few more minutes while its reported via SMS. But this is 911, land of gunshot wounds and 8 car pileups. If it’s worth contacting 911, it’s worth a phone call.