Bill requires local emergency centers to accept texts from 911

Molly Anderson, with husband Joshua, has advocated that text-to-911 be available in every Tennessee county. (Photo: Submitted)
Molly Anderson, with husband Joshua, has advocated that text-to-911 be available in every Tennessee county. (Photo: Submitted)

When Molly Anderson got into a wreck last March — crashing her car into a hearse loaded with a coffin on busy Knoxville highway — she wasn’t hurt but she needed help.

The problem: Anderson cannot speak, a result of a speech disability she has had since birth. In tears and feeling helpless, Anderson relied on a bystander to call 911.

Anderson, 25, and her husband, Joshua, 24, have since become the driving force behind a measure to ensure that every 911 operator in Tennessee has the ability to receive texts messages during emergencies.

A bill by Sen. Becky Massey and Rep. Eddie Mannis, both Knoxville Republicans, would require all local emergency communications districts to provide text-to-911 services by January 1, 2023. The bill, which has received nearly universal praise from lawmakers, is on track to become law.

Already at least 11 of Tennessee’s 95 counties provide the services, with 38 additional counties in the process of establishing text services, Massey said. The measure, if enacted, would make the service uniformly accessible across the state.

Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, with Joshua and Molly Anderson. (Photo: Submitted)
Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, with Joshua and Molly Anderson. (Photo: Submitted)

Texting to 911 has been steadily gaining ground across the country. In 2018, 33 states that adopted text-to-911 reported 188,646 messages, according to data compiled by the National 911 Program. By 2019, 38 states were reporting 581,151 text messages reporting emergencies to 911 centers.

Anderson, speaking in sign language with her husband interpreting, said the measure “feels even more important to me now” that she is in her third trimester of pregnancy with their first child.

“For the deaf and hard of hearing communities, people with speech disabilities, and people in medical situations who cannot verbally communicate, texting 911 will be a helpful alternative way to contact 911 in case of an emergency,” said Anderson, a family engagement specialist for The Arc Tennessee, which serves individuals with disabilities. “Texting 911 can save lives.”

The text-to-911 measure also has the support of domestic violence and anti-human trafficking organizations, who have cited scenarios in which victims in dangerous situations can seek emergency help without being overheard.

Joshua Anderson, a law school student who works in a legal clinic operated by the University of Tennessee, said he was struck by the number of instances in which domestic violence victims spoke up in court about being afraid to call 911 because they might be overheard by perpetrators.

“Texting 911 would be a game changer for people in that situation,” he said.

Massey has said that another reason she is pushing for a texting feature is that it could also be critical form of communication in the event of a mass casualty event, such as school or shopping center shooting.

The Federal Communications Commission is encouraging emergency call centers across the nation to begin accepting texts and federal rules require all wireless carriers to deliver texts to call centers that request them.

Under federal rules, cell phone carriers are required to send bounce-back messages to individuals who text 911 in areas that do not offer the service.

Calls centers that do accept 911-by-text still encourage those who can to call instead. For those using the service, call centers advise that the initial text include the address of the emergency.

If enacted in Tennessee, the measure will cost local authorities a total of $440,600 in its first year, and $262,000 annually going forward — a cost that is expected to be defrayed by existing cell phone usage taxes. The costs include call center phone upgrades, internet connectivity and cell phone service provider fees.

There are currently 769 call takers at 911 centers across Tennessee. Thus far, just 250 are in counties that accept texts to 911.