Texts to 911? FCC Takes Next Step Toward Making NG911 a Reality

 
 
By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2010-12-22
 
 
 

The Federal Communications Commission has taken a new step toward updating the nation's 911 services with the ability to receive text messages, photos and video from mobile phones.

On Dec. 21, the FCC filed an NOI (Official Notice of Inquiry) seeking public comment on how NG911 (Next Generation 911) can best provide emergency assistance using communications technologies beyond just telephone calls.

Despite the fact that there are more than 270 million wireless consumers nationwide and that approximately 70 percent of all 911 calls are made from mobile handheld devices, today's 911 systems support voice-centric communications only and are not designed to transfer and receive text messaging, videos or photos, the FCC said in a statement. In some emergency situations-especially in circumstances where a call could further jeopardize someones life and safety-texting may be the only way to reach out for help.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski commented on this matter in a Nov. 23 speech, and in an accompanying press released offered the example of the 2007 shooting that took place on the Virginia Tech campus. During the shooting, students and witnesses had tried to send text messages to 911, not realizing that the technology was not supported.

If these messages had gone through, first responders may have arrived on the scene faster with firsthand intelligence about the life-threatening situation that was unfolding, the FCC said in the November statement.

In the NOI, the FCC similarly added that the timely sharing of relevant videos and photos would provide first responders with on-the-ground information to help assess and address emergencies in real-time thus giving law enforcement officials an increased advantage when responding.

Another benefit to expanding the services capabilities, states the NOI, would be its ability to support Americans with disabilities who rely on text messaging as a primary means of communication.

NG911 could potentially also provide location responders with location information.

"As we discussed when we launched [the proceeding to make location-accuracy requirements more stringent for wireless service providers], too many mobile 9-1-1 calls don't provide accurate location information to responders," Genachowski said in his own Dec. 21 statement.

He continued, "Even beyond that, there is much more we can do to seize the opportunities of mobile technologies for 9-1-1. As we all know, consumers are increasingly using their phones for texting. And yet, even though mobile phones are the device used by most 9-1-1 callers, right now, you cant text 9-1-1. Let me repeat that point. If you find yourself in an emergency situation and want to send a text for help, you can pretty much text anyone except a 9-1-1 call center.

Certainly the technology to support SMS messages to 9-1-1 is available. In August 2009, a call center in Iowa became the first to do so. The obstacles on a national level relate more to logistics, security and costs. In the NOI, the FCC asks a number of questions related to the deployment of NG911, including queries about the feasibility and limitations of text messaging video streaming and photos; privacy issues related to sharing personal electronic medical data; policy standards; consumer education about the service; and inter-governmental coordination.

"9-1-1 is an indispensible, life-saving tool. Broadband can make it even better," said Genachowski, offering one sound bite after the next. "It's time to bring 9-1-1 into the digital age."

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