Spotlight on Emergency Communications

Spotlight on Emergency Communications

Because text messaging is such a common way of communicating, many citizens are surprised to discover that texting 911 during an emergency isn't an option in most communities.

But when phoning 911 isn't possible, residents in Marion County, Fla., can reach emergency responders by sending a text message to 352-351-9111. "The first priority is to phone 911," says Judge Cochran, public information officer for the Marion County Sheriff's Office. If someone sends a text message, "the operator will send an immediate response, ‘Can you call?' If not, we ask the person, ‘What's your emergency?' "

For example, an intruder could be in the home or phone lines might become overwhelmed during an emergency. The most serious incident reported to date was when a woman's boyfriend who worked in law enforcement was acting erratically, and she texted the number thinking she'd get nearby Orange County. "We called Orlando and they were able to get there before he hurt her or himself," Cochran says.

An officer in the sheriff's office designed software to send the text data to the emergency response system. When a text comes in, lights in the 911 center go off to alert operators. The solution cost about $1,000 for the hardware investment, plus roughly $50 per month for a standard texting contract with a carrier.

The county ordered 100,000 business cards with the emergency text number printed on them and distributed them to kids during the back-to-school shopping season. County residents have been asked to add the number to their cell phones in case they have an emergency and cannot call for help.

Mass Notification

While the public's capability to alert public safety officials to emergencies via text message isn't yet widespread, such communication in the opposite direction is increasingly common. State and local governments rely on emergency notification systems to inform citizenry of looming storms, road closures or manhunts. Services from providers such as InformaCast, Nixle and Roam Secure allow governments to contact subscribers via phone or e-mail, and governments also often use such systems internally to keep employees in the loop.

"The emergency notification service and mass notification market is growing fast," says Roberta Witty, a research vice president at Gartner. While emergency and crisis alerting serve as the primary reason for use of these tools, Gartner's "MarketScope for Emergency and Mass Notification Services" report forecasts a convergence of emergency notification and communications-enabled business processes in the next five years as alerting and notification of all kinds become routine.

Bridging the Gap

The Cisco IP Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) radio dispatch and incident response system facilitates real-time communication between emergency responders.

The solution uses IP for UHF/VHF radio interoperability with push-to-talk capability and integrates IP phones, cell phones, PCs and mobile devices. Cisco IPICS components include a server, a dispatch console, a mobile client for smartphones and an IP phone client.

IPICS offers rich-media incident management, giving dispatchers the ability to consolidate information and share it among participants. Whether the incident is a hostage situation, wildfire or a rescue-and-recovery operation in response to an accident, the more details first responders have, the better. The Cisco product also integrates with Cisco Video Surveillance Manager and Cisco Physical Access Control to enhance situational awareness.


"New Mexico is one of only a few states that have received the FCC license and funds for implementation to meet new standards for public safety networks."

-- Marlin Mackey, cabinet secretary, New Mexico Department of Information Technology

"California is proud to lead the country in having the ability to instantly alert residents via their mobile phones to an emergency or disaster specific to their current location."

-- Matthew Bettenhausen, secretary, California Emergency Management Agency

"Whether it is a major storm, a hazmat incident or an office closing, AlertPA delivers up-to-the-minute information to those who need it, precisely when they need it."

-- Brenda Orth, deputy secretary for information technology, commonwealth of Pennsylvania

By the Numbers

8,300 +

Number of all-hazard alert radios to be distributed by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security this year


Percentage of respondents who believe that emergency response agencies should regularly monitor and respond to postings on their websites and social media sites, according to a survey by the American Red Cross

$70 million

Grant money recently awarded to the state of Mississippi to improve emergency communications


Number of disasters declared by FEMA in the first half of 2010


Cost of computer equipment needed by Marion County, Fla., to accept distress calls via text message


Percentage of CIOs who said Next Generation 9-1-1 has some or a great effect on their states' broadband policies, according to a NASCIO survey

Sep 22 2010