In New York City, where I live, the deaf and hard of hearing are out of luck when it comes to calling 911 for help.
Text 911 (or Text-to-911) is available in thousands of municipalities and counties across the United States. It can be life-saving not only for those who cannot hear but also for people with speech impediments, for those in hostage situations, in domestic violence disputes, or in active shooter scenarios, among others.
So where is New York City’s long-promised 911 texting system?
In June 2017 New York City’s Department of Information & Technology (DoITT) announced a plan for a fully digital 911 system that could handle texts, photos and videos as well as phone calls. That system, Next-Generation 911, was scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2022. In the interim, the city would offer a more modest 911 texting service, expected to go into service by early 2018, according to the June 2017 announcement.
As a headline in the local online newspaper The City put it, “Text-to-911 Caught in Life-or-Death Battle Between NYPD and Tech Agency.” Here’s a link to the article, which also fills in the background of New York’s dispute.
This week (Nov. 12), the City Council’s Committee on Technology held a joint hearing with the Committee on Fire and Emergency and the Committee on Public Safety to see why New York still lacks a basic Text 911 system. A panel of members of the Deaf community were the first to testify. Speaking through interpreters, one after another described harrowing experiences with 911. On a later panel, a man overcame his stutter to eloquently describe the insulting treatment he’d received from impatient 911 operators. Another speaker recalled being stranded at a highway bus stop at night with no way to communicate her whereabouts.
Representatives of DoITT and the police and fire departments testified next. One official begged off under sharp questioning by the committee chair, saying he’d only been in the job since the previous summer. As soon as the city officials were finished their testimony, they got up and left, despite the fact that further panels of those affected had not yet spoken.
I testified on behalf of those with hearing loss and explained that even with a hearing aid and a cochlear implant I cannot hear well enough to respond to a 911 operator’s questions, especially on the street or almost anywhere outside of my apartment. I pointed out that the inability to report an emergency endangers not only the individual trying to make the call but others in the area. A deaf friend recently told me about encountering a dangerously disturbed man on the subway, who was agitated and aggressive to other passengers. She got off the train and looked in vain for a transit official or police officer. New York’s subways have Wifi, but she wouldn’t have been able to communicate with the 911 operator. Finally, feeling “irresponsible and guilty for not following through,” she gave up. It’s the city that should feel irresponsible and guilty.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for NextGen, which officials said is at least four years away. The city has yet to select a contractor for the system. Nor is the interim system anywhere in sight. Current estimates for the interim system are for the summer of 2020.
A few years ago when I wrote about Text 911, a representative from the city’s office of emergency management told me about two services that provide the equivalent of Text 911: Smart 911 and Rapid SOS. But learning about and installing those apps requires training and forethought. We’re taught from the time we can speak to call 911 in an emergency. Who stops to think of alternatives when danger threatens?
For more information about Text 911, go to the FCC’s Text-to-911: Quick Facts and FAQs. The FCC also maintains a frequently updated master list of areas that have Text 911.
Readers, if you’ve had difficult or dangerous experiences with 911, please comment. If you live in an area with Text 911, please share what that experience is like.
For more about living with hearing loss, read my books, available at Amazon.com. (If you want to buy the paperback of Smart Hearing, wait. Amazon has it listed at $18.25 for some reason. It should be $10.99.)