November 30, 2023

Organizations seek solution for non-English Text-to-911

With the ability to text emergency messages to 9-1-1 being deployed across the nation, the need for a translation solution for non-English Text-to-911 calls for service has been identified as a critical need to help 9-1-1 Telecommunicators. Census data reveals that 61 million people nationwide speak a language other than English at home. Once a PSAP deploys Text-to-911 in their service area, it should be expected that a non-English text will be received in short time. There is currently no standard or solution in place to address the critical communications gap. This will require new standards and solutions to be developed to ensure that a 9-1-1 Telecommunicator and the citizen texter can rapidly and reliably communicate during an emergency.

For most PSAPs, translating non-English voice calls requires extra steps depending on the language of the caller. This may be as simple as having a Telecommunicator that speaks the 2nd language translate or as complicated as performing a third-party conference call with a language service provider that will assist with the translations. Text-to-911 calls will further complicate call handling due to limitations for the Telecommunicator to share the caller’s interactions in real-time with a language service provider.

Many PSAPs use over-the-phone translation services that offer translation of more than 200 different languages, but the voice nature of those services proves difficult for translation of text messages. The over-the-phone market is big enough that PSAPs can benefit from sharing the costs of those services. However, there is a lack of a business case for human-assisted interpretation of 9-1-1 text messages, meaning that such a translation method is too costly for PSAPs to adopt. Some PSAPs are compensating for this by use non-traditional PSAPs tools such as machine translation tools available over the Internet. Think Babelfish or Google Translate. These may work in a pinch but they may not always convey meaning during an emergency and will also encounter challenges when shortened text lingo is utilized. These also assume that the Internet is available to a Telecommunicator on their workstation. In a lot of cases, PSAPs do not allow Internet access from the same workstation due to network security concerns.

Related Story: DHS S&T, IJIS Host Text-to-911 Techfest on Google Campus

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate has teamed up with the Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute and the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT), along with CyraCom, an industry-leading language translation service provide to develop, pilot and test a solution. The result will be a standard for implementing a non-English Text-to-911 solution for limited English proficiency (LEP) constituents.

In June 2019, IJIS Institute hosted a Techfest that simulated a PSAP using machine translation with an integrated option that allows a dispatcher to conference in a human translator to help coach the dispatcher through a machine-translated text. The simulation revealed that only about 56% of machine translations are acceptable in terms of accuracy needed for public safety usage.

Although the simulation results are not ideal, it is expected that some version of a machine translation solution will be the best path forward to help solve the problem; however, there is a lack of a business case with vendors to supply wide acceleration of a solution. We may see regional or customized developments driven by specific PSAPs; however, the cost of implementation may be outside the reach of smaller PSAPs.

To allow uninterrupted service to those texting to 9-1-1 as more PSAPs implement the technology, some work needs to be done to make machine translations viable. First, industry organizations must partner with public safety to develop a business case for including human translation in any text translation solution. As more PSAPs implement Text-to-911, more data should be become available to illustrate the business case.

Next steps for the project include additional collaboration between public safety emergency call centers, industry technology providers, and language service providers, to address affordability of a commercially-available, public-safety-grade solution for Text-to-911 translation.

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