Iowa: home to butter cows, king makers, corn, and now SMS 9-1-1

I should preface this post by saying I have a home-grown bias when it comes to Iowa.  Hailing from the neighbor to the north, Minnesota, there is an inherent rivalry that can cloud even the best news reports coming from the home of Johnny Carson, John Wayne and of course Fred Grandy (you can't write about Iowa and miss pointing out that "Gopher" from the Love Boat is one of their most famous citizens).  The fact that they get to essentially select who I get to vote for every four years does get to me a bit (though the Howard Dean debacle was some nice comeupins, Heyaaaww!! ) That being said, I think the latest news from Iowa really is groundbreaking.  

The Associated Press reports that on Aug. 5th 2009, the 9-1-1 call center in Waterloo, Iowa (Black Hawk County) will begin accepting 9-1-1 text messages.  The service is currently only available in Black Hawk County and only on the local T-Mobile partner, i wireless.  
Is this an important development?  If you consider that over half of all 9-1-1 calls now originate from mobile phones coupled with the fact that this is a GSM-based solution (I'm sure Intrado will work with CDMA as well) which is traditionally not the best at covering rural areas west of the Mississippi then I think you can see the value in a service that can provide better emergency response connectivity in a state that claims 51 people per square mile (20 per sq km).  If you have ever driven across the Midwest states and tried to keep up a mobile conversation, you will know that many times sending an SMS is more reliable (the other party will get the message) whereas voice can be choppy and frustratingly undependable.  
Although the benefits for rural states such as Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas et al. can be immediate, deployment to urban regions could transform delivery of services and conceivably lower the costs of providing the services. The increase in 9-1-1 calls since Sept. 11,  2001 has created an operating expense nightmare for many communities. By implementing a system where an operator could be handling and responding to even two incidents at the same time may be a welcome cost relief for cash strapped cities.  
The longer term prospect of enabling 9-1-1 SMS across the nation will be a long row to hoe for Intrado, 911 Enable, RedSky, Cisco and other e911 vendors.  Carrier participation will be the bigger hurdle whereas acceptance from the citizenry will likely be quick.  In a short personal poll I conducted, over half of my small sample already assumed incorrectly that you could send an SMS to 911.  The carriers, worn down from enabling the federally mandated e911 and fighting privacy groups who believe they are becoming big brother, may not have the fortitude to take on the infrastructure changes required to enable SMS communication to all the various Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs) without some guarantee of use.  For a regional player like i wireless to offer this service is one thing, but for Verizon or AT&T to offer this only regionally as they make the necessary national arrangements could open them up to debilitating liability claims and therefore stalling any roll-out until coverage is at 100%.  
Herein lies the crux of our Emergency Services issue in the United States. Although the ability to dial 9-1-1 and be connected to emergency services is ubiquitous, the actual provisioning of that service is still a local effort. There is no central coordinating force that would allow a service in Waterloo, IA to be immediately available to Orange County, CA or even Des Moines, IA.  Funds for enabling this feature come from local governments and the contracts with Intrado or any other vendor are, at best, made at a state level.  
I have had many conversations with clients when consulting on e911 for the enterprise about this misunderstanding.  Most assume they can buy one service or application to cover all their sites equally with the same rules for all.  Few understand the locality implications of an Enterprise e911 roll-out.  In the end it comes down to the same thing as usual, funding.  If the person responding to your 9-1-1 call is the local police, sheriff, or fire department and those officers are paid for out of local budgets then how can a national system (read federal mandate) dictate the manner and amount of overhead required by the system to collect and dispatch those resources?  Without a secure set of funding at the local level, how can a national carrier implement a system that may or may not have customers to financially support it?  In 2002 the President's eGov program SAFECOM compiled a list of over 50,000 individual emergency response services and agencies in the US.  Each one would need coordination to implement any new feature across the nation.  The intersection of our public safety and the marketplace is not new nor is overcoming the contradiction unattainable but the inherent risks in delaying solutions like this one are distributed and therefore less of a force on the process.
Luckily, east Iowans are a bit safer today than they were last week.  But if one of them gets into trouble at the State Fair in Des Moines this month (west central Iowa), they will still need to call 9-1-1, the option still isn't there for
Joshua Sillers
Joshua Sillers

Joshua Sillers has been with Orange for the past 12 years working to enhance the customer experience. He is currently serving as a Collaboration Sales Expert with an emphasis on Team collaboration tools, API interactions, Orange OpenLabs and User Adoption Services. Joshua holds a B.A. degree in International Relations and Spanish from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN and a Masters of Science in Technology Management from the University of Minnesota.