CBC: Don’t text 911

RCMP in British Columbia are warning people not to text message 911 in emergencies.

Sandy Vogstad, with the RCMP’s communication centre, said the province’s 911 system can’t deliver text messages.

“It is the system in general that there is no methodology available technically to push that text through the whole system,” Vogstad said.

Reading comments on CBC.ca is generally a waste of time, but these ones are especially precious — throngs of people arguing that the 911 system is broken, or backwards, or that there’s something wrong with the outfit because they don’t have a spare cell phone kicking around that can receive text messages. (We’ll tackle the mentality that would possess someone to send an SMS message to 911 in the first place some other time.) It’s a lot like reading dslreports.com or something about how the telecommunication companies are a bunch of incompetent idiots because Cat5 is really cheap from Future Shop, so how hard would it be to string more wire around for more bandwidth? Everyone’s a frigging expert on absolutely everything now, even people who don’t know anything.

I’m guessing that the folks who are arguing that 911 should accept SMS don’t realize there’s no such thing as a universal 911 access point. That dialing 911 from a cell phone routes to the cell’s (not the phone’s) default PSAP. That SMS contains no routing information other than a destination address. That GPS is somehow a panacea for finding people (it’s not — the limitations of GPS are poorly understood by people who do not normally use satellite navigation systems for actual navigation purposes that don’t involve staying on the road). That all you need to do is dial 911, shout “Help!” into the phone, and have the universe collapse in on you.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. It never does, never has, and never will. That’s the perception, though, and I’m trying to puzzle through whose fault that is. The ubiquity of technology — the rapid proliferation of the various types of personal networking gear, and the friendliness of it all — is probably to blame here. But the reality of the telecommunications world is much, much different. Sure, RIM can run all the BlackBerries in the world through their servers. But what happens when those servers go down? They’re built to a fault-tolerance level that would make most people cry out in pain, but even they break, and the howling when they do is deafening.

Doing life-critical telecoms engineering — which is what 911 is — is staggeringly difficult, because it has to work. It’s not OK for the system to be up 99.999% of the time: it has to be up all of the time, and it has to fail gracefully and be workable even when it isn’t. You cannot do this with stuff you buy at Radio Shack, no matter how well this works for you in your day-to-day life.

“My X can do Y” is not a good thing to tell professional engineers and designers whose work is being held to a significantly higher standard than anything you have direct experience with. The amount of effort that goes into this stuff is remarkable, and it never ceases to amaze me that it works as well as it does.