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Back to Archives | Back to April 2010 Contents 

Technology Talk

Texting to 9-1-1 in Black Hawk County Consolidated Communications

By Thomas Jennings, Chief of Police (Retired), Waterloo, Iowa; and Judy Flores, Director of Consolidated Communications Center, Blackhawk County, Iowa

owa’s Black Hawk County Consolidated Communications Center (BHCCC) broke new ground in 2009 in an effort to better serve its citizens. Realizing that there had been an increase in text messaging among the general population, coupled with a large hearing-impaired community within its jurisdiction, Black Hawk County recognized that a service gap existed when a citizen needed to reach a 9-1-1 operator but was unable to place a voice call. To bridge this gap, BHCCC implemented the solution of text messaging to 9-1-1.

BHCCC, located in Waterloo, Iowa, is an eight-position Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), providing 9-1-1 call-taking and dispatch services for law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services to the county’s more than 128,000 residents. The fourth largest populated county in the state, Black Hawk County has a long history of progressive thinking.

With an eye toward the future, the county made the decision several years ago to advance its communications technology with Next Generation-enabled radio, telecommunications, and data infrastructure, in alignment with the Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) initiative to improve wireless and mobile public emergency communications services in the United States and Canada. This upgrade served as the foundation to bring NG9-1-1 capabilities into the BHCCC and enabled text messaging in the 9-1-1 call flow.

Making 9-1-1 Texting a Reality

To support direct texting to 9-1-1, BHCCC needed to make a simple network and software upgrade to its 9-1-1 call-handling equipment with the assistance of service providers RACOM and Intrado/Positron. The advanced Internet protocol (IP) network allowed traffic to run across a dedicated, public safety-grade network that was reliable and provided for continuity of operations. This secure IP connectivity, unlike the public Internet, is provided through a private network that ensures greater functionality and security.

Upgrading the county’s network and software was only part of the equation. The county also needed to partner with a wireless carrier that could provide a single mobile switching area and a service footprint that could be geographically defined. This allowed for a controlled environment in which 9-1-1 text messaging traffic could be better monitored, analyzed, and evaluated.

This text messaging in Black Hawk County utilizes short message service (SMS) to establish a text conversation directly between the caller and a BHCCC operator. While SMS was not initially developed for public safety use—it has a much larger audience in text messaging among the general public—it has gained widespread acceptance and is becoming an increasingly popular form of communication.

When a Black Hawk County resident sends a text message to 9-1-1, the SMS is routed into the 9-1-1 network and prompts the caller to provide the closest city or ZIP code. Once location is determined, the text for help is received at the geographicallyappropriate PSAP. This process is similar to a voice call but the dialogue occurs in the text message display on the citizen’s phone and at the PSAP’s computer terminal concurrently and in real time.

Defining the Future of 9-1-1 Texting

In order to ensure a public safety–grade, reliable solution, this technological approach mirrors the phased-in solutions used to implement callback number and location information in wireless enhanced 9-1-1 operations. The current text solution will evolve and enable the “caller” to be located automatically by cell-tower location. Eventually, as part of the implementation phase, a location application will be fully integrated into the “caller’s” handset so that latitude and longitude information is available. Since the SMS call flow is similar to a voice call queue, that same location technology can be leveraged for text messaging.

As a result of this process, text messages are delivered directly into 9-1-1 to the correct PSAP. The Black Hawk County Text to 9-1-1 Project has been successful because the solution was deployed within existing parameters of both the agency’s carrier network and the 9-1-1 network.

The Next Generation of 9-1-1

While it is important to note that a voice call remains the best way to contact 9-1-1, text messaging to 9-1-1 provides much needed assistance to speech- and hearing-impaired citizens. This solution will also help those in special circumstances where making a voice call to 9-1-1 is not possible or could compromise a caller’s safety.

Black Hawk County, Iowa, has taken the first big step into Internet communication for NG9-1-1 delivery. This advanced solution will continue to enable the PSAPs to communicate with individuals who rely mainly on text messaging.

This successful deployment demonstrates that text messaging and other NG9-1-1 delivery technologies can be implemented by agencies to provide an additional public safety service to their communities. ■

Please cite as:

Thomas Jennings and Judy Flores, "Texting to 9-1-1 in Black Hawk County Consolidated Communications," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 77 (April 2010): 138, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 4, April 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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