Optimum 911 services should be available to any caller at any time. However, some callers face unique challenges in accessing emergency services, such as people who are deaf and hard of hearing, seniors and those in rural or large metropolitan areas.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing
In the current 911 system, deaf and hard of hearing callers must use a teletypewriter (TTY) text telephone device or a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) to contact 911 in an emergency. These devices, invented in the 1960s, allow users to type messages to each other, but are cumbersome and slow to operate.
E-mail, instant messages, video chat and text messages are now much more commonly used by people who are deaf and hard of hearing. However, because most 911 call centers still cannot accept text messages, people with hearing or speech disabilities must still use a TTY device, or have their messages relayed to a 911 call-taker by a friend, relative or third-party relay service.
Learn more about text-to-911 availability across the nation.
Text-to-911 services and Next-Generation 911 hold particular promise for people with hearing impairments or other disabilities. As public safety answering points (call centers) implement Next Generation technology, call centers will be able to communicate directly with deaf or hard-of-hearing callers via text messaging and eventually, picture and video messages.
Rural and tribal 911 centers face special challenges, typically because they serve areas that are large geographically but less-densely populated than urban areas. Telecommunicators in rural call centers are often called upon to perform a variety of duties, not directly related to taking 911 calls.
In addition, because it may take first responders longer to reach the scene of an emergency, call-takers in call centers serving rural areas may be required to stay on the phone longer with callers or provide more extensive emergency instruction to callers until help arrives. And in medical emergencies, hospitals are often farther away, which results in extended transport times, making the ambulance unavailable for other calls in its response area – in areas that may have very limited coverage to begin with. The limited responder resources typical of rural areas also can be more quickly overwhelmed in disasters or large-scale incidents.
Rural 911 agencies may lack the resources needed for technology upgrades, equipment and training. But supporting rural call centers is vitally important, particularly because it may take longer for help to arrive in rural areas, and the call-taker may make an even bigger difference in the outcome of an emergency situation.
While NG911 technology is currently available, funding and implementation challenges are significant. It is expected that the transition to NG911 will take many years, and that the legacy 911 systems will still be used for many years, especially in rural areas.
Large Metropolitan Communities
Large metropolitan communities also face substantial challenges in delivering 911 services to the public. Call overload due to large populations and the overwhelming number of calls generated are a significant issue for call centers in large metropolitan areas. Unlike the rural call centers, which may receive as few as 10 calls in a month, large metropolitan areas may receive more than 10 million calls annually. Call overload, when a large volume of calls exceeds the capabilities of a particular call centers' capacity, results in emergency callers receiving a busy signal, instead of being connected to a call taker. This issue increases in frequency as wireless phones permeate the marketplace and larger numbers of calls are placed to report emergencies, such as highway crashes.
The intense call volume in metro areas creates significant staffing needs. Call-taker training and retention also present challenges to call center managers striving to meet the community's needs with educated and experienced 911 call takers.
Like many other metropolitan city services, 911 centers face increased community needs, decreasing financial support, and limited local government funding all while planning for the future of 911 service in these densely populated areas.