Sending texts, photos and videos in emergencies from mobile phones may be a new way of alerting public safety personnel to an emergency. The problem is that most 9-1-1 agencies aren’t set up to handle that kind of messaging.
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said Tuesday that the FCC will examine how to equip today’s 9-1-1 system to accommodate new emergency alerts. "Today’s 9-1-1 system doesn’t support the communication tools of tomorrow," Genachowski said in a statement. "Even though mobile phones are the device of choice for most 9-1-1 callers (right now), you can’t text 9-1-1. It’s time to bring 9-1-1 into the digital age."
Genachowski noted the disconnect in which 70% of mobile phone users text regularly, but they usually can’t get through to a 9-1-1 center by texting, or by sending photos or videos. Citing the tragic instance of the deadly Virginia Tech shooting in which witnesses desperately tried to send emergency texts unsuccessfully while students were being shot, Genachowski said first responders likely would have been able to arrive on the scene quickly.
The problem is particularly acute among the 30 million Americans with speech and hearing disabilities. Texting, in particular, would be a great boon for them. A program in Black Hawk County, Iowa, developed a mobile phone texting system for impaired individuals a year ago. The county’s 9-1-1 service board developed a texting system with cooperation from a group of wireless companies and public safety agencies.
In the Iowa program, the development of Short Message Service established a text link directly between callers and 9-1-1 dispatchers. SMS has been gaining acceptance in the speech- and hearing-impaired community. The program leaders have entertained hopes that the system, or a replication of it, could be adopted across the U.S. Genachowski noted that mobile videos and photos could provide first responders with information that would help them assess emergency situations and better prepare them to deal with the emergencies in real time.
The 9-1-1 system was established in 1968 and has saved many lives. The FCC said Americans make 650,000 emergency calls every month.