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Monitor Board of Contributors: Why can’t we text 911 in New Hampshire?

In this Thursday, May 24, 2012 photo, Anna Schiferl, foreground, texts her mother, Joanna, as they pose for a photograph in their LaGrange, Ill. home. Statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that, these days, many people with cell phones prefer texting over a phone call. It’s not always young people, though the data indicates that the younger you are, the more likely you are to prefer texting. But many experts say the most successful communicators will, of course, have the ability to do both talk or text, and know the most appropriate times to use those skills. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

In this Thursday, May 24, 2012 photo, Anna Schiferl, foreground, texts her mother, Joanna, as they pose for a photograph in their LaGrange, Ill. home. Statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that, these days, many people with cell phones prefer texting over a phone call. It’s not always young people, though the data indicates that the younger you are, the more likely you are to prefer texting. But many experts say the most successful communicators will, of course, have the ability to do both talk or text, and know the most appropriate times to use those skills. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Almost 5 years ago, my family became front-page news because of a home invasion in the middle of the night. My 13-year-old daughter was the only one woken by the intruder, because he entered her bedroom. When he momentarily exited, she texted 911.

Why was her first response to text? Because she could do it without the intruder hearing her. It was quiet. It was quick. The text message didn’t go through, however, because New Hampshire does not have the infrastructure to support texting to 911.

Fortunately, my daughter was able to furtively call 911 and stay on the line, pretending to be asleep when the intruder returned to her bedroom. The Concord police arrived, and my daughter was physically unharmed.

Afterward, I contacted law enforcement, including then Concord Police Chief Robert Barry, who put me in touch with New Hampshire’s Enhanced 911 Commission.

I received a detailed and considerate response to my written inquiry from Chief Douglas Aiken, who was then and is the chairman of the commission.

He informed me that the Federal Communications Commission had not mandated that telecommunications carriers provide information to 911 centers using text or any other non-voice service, and that “New Hampshire’s 911 system cannot receive data that the service providers cannot send to us.”

That has changed. As of May 15, as the Monitor reported, Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T have the ability to transmit text-to-911 messages anywhere in the nation. According to the FCC’s website, however, 911 call centers in only two states, Maine and Vermont, are able to accept text messages. In 14 other states, text-to-911 is available in some parts of the state.

New Hampshire’s 911 system, like that of the majority of states, has no ability to accept the text messages the four carriers can now send.

The need to upgrade the infrastructure to allow texting to 911 became even more clear following the April 20, 2007, massacre at Virginia Tech, when students unsuccessfully tried to text 911.

In July 2010, state Emergency Services Director Bruce Cheney told the Associated Press that he hoped to bring text-to-911 to New Hampshire within three years.

In its September 2011 “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” the FCC observed that “adding non-voice capabilities to our 911 system will significantly improve emergency response, save lives and reduce property damage.”

The FCC specifically stated that “text messaging also holds obvious advantages for those with certain disabilities (e.g., those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech disabilities), and texting may provide an avenue for contacting emergency services when using voice communications could itself prove dangerous, e.g. during a hostage situation or a home break-in.”

Given my daughter’s experience, I was moved that the FCC itself recognized the value of text-to-911 in a home invasion.

In a Dec. 6, 2012 news release, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski urged “nationwide text-to-911 as quickly as possible.”

Just this year, on Jan. 30, the FCC issued a “Policy Statement and Second Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking,” which reaffirmed its “fundamental view of the importance of text-to-911 functionality.”

According to the draft minutes of the most recent meeting of New Hampshire’s Enhanced 911 Commission, text-to-911 in New Hampshire is a work in progress, but there is no timeline for its implementation.

I call on the Legislature to study where New Hampshire stands vis-à-vis the rest of the country in terms of adding the necessary technology. Why should our neighbor states be on the cutting edge of this important safety measure?

It is important that the Legislature devote the necessary funds and support to the commission so it can implement text-to-911 as expeditiously as possible.

It is equally important that there is adequate funding for public education if the use of text-to-911 does not automatically identify the caller’s location to the 911 call center. We should do all we can to ensure that the next time a frightened teenager texts 911, the message goes through.

(Sheila Zakre is a lawyer in Concord and the owner of Zakre Law Office.)

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