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NBC 10 I-Team: Text to 911 nearly 2 years behind schedule

Rhode Island has all the hardware and software needed to start the service, but more than a year after it was scheduled to launch, texting 911 still isn’t possible in the state. (WJAR)

Technology that allows people to send text messages to 911 can save lives, especially when talking on the phone isn’t safe or possible.

Rhode Island has all the hardware and software needed to start the service, but more than a year after it was scheduled to launch, texting 911 still isn’t possible in the state.

Advocates for the hearing impaired say the delays are putting them at risk.

“Our lives depend on 911,” said Steven Florio, who is the executive director of the Rhode Island Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

If you try to text 911 in Rhode Island right now, you’ll see an error message, telling you to make a voice call instead. But for the more than 200,000 people in the state who have some level of hearing loss, that’s often impossible.

"When an emergency arises, oftentimes they're helpless,” Florio told NBC 10. “They want to be able to report these public safety situations."

Texting 911 can also be lifesaving in many situations where talking isn’t safe, such as an active shooter, a home invasion or domestic violence. It’s already available in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and parts of Connecticut.

The NBC 10 I-Team checked state records and learned Rhode Island has already spent $678,687 for the equipment needed to launch what’s known as NextGen911, technology that would support text messages. But one crucial component is missing: the additional employees needed to answer texts inside the state’s E-911 center in Scituate.

The NG911 technology was scheduled to launch in 2017. State Police told NBC 10 they now plan to launch it before the end of 2018, and have requested funding for two additional employees in the Department of Public Safety budget to handle incoming texts.

As the NBC 10 I-Team has reported, there’s plenty of money available to pay for those new positions. Rhode Island took in some $17 million in 911 fees from cell phone and land line bills in 2017, but the state diverted more than $10 million of that to the General Fund. The practice, which goes back more than a decade, drew the ire of the FCC following NBC 10’s reports. Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nick Mattiello later said they would work to end 911 fee diversion this year.

Meanwhile, Florio said people in the deaf and hard of hearing community feel they’re being ignored, year after year.

"It's always the same message for the past few years that we've received, and we're wondering, when is it going to happen?" he asked. “All we need is your support and your commitment.”

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