Fairfax looking to add 911 texting service

WASHINGTON – Fairfax County officials want to bring 911 texting to the county’s residents.

Sharon Bulova, chairperson of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, says the county would like to add the option of texting to its existing 911 emergency system if the technical problems can be worked out.

“It looks like an innovative opportunity to offer to people in addition to making to a phone call,” Bulova says.

The texting option would allow residents to text a message to emergency responders if they cannot make a telephone call. The text could include a brief message describing where you are and what the emergency is.

“It’s not without some difficulties and we just want to make sure the bugs are worked out prior to our adopting something to make sure that it’s going to work for our citizens,” Bulova says.

A major failure in the region’s 911 emergency system during last summer’s derecho has led to increased scrutiny of the system’s backbone technology and has prompted calls for faster upgrades.

But upgrading to a “next generation” 911 system will take time and the technology is still evolving. Officials envision that in the future, residents will be able to send videos, photos and text messages from any device with Internet access.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission said the country’s four largest wireless carriers agreed to relay text messages to 911 centers by 2014. The carriers cover most users, but only a few 911 centers accept the messages.

A 911 center in Iowa began receiving texts in 2009 and trials are currently happening in Vermont.

The FCC said texting to 911 could be useful when a phone call could put the caller in danger. Texting could also aid a person with disabilities who is unable to call.

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WTOP’s Hank Silverberg contributed to this report. Follow @hsilverbergwtop and @WTOP on Twitter.

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