Text Messages to 911 Could Save Lives, Says FCC

Citing a three-year-old tragedy, the FCC seems to have gotten the message loud and clear: the ability for 911 to accept text messages could help save lives.

The Federal Communications Commission reportedly is finally considering updating its 911 system to accept text messages and streaming video.

In a speech Nov. 23, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to expand on several suggested updates to the emergency alert service, including the ability for citizens to send texts, The Washington Post reported.

Mobile phones are increasingly a main form of communication for many Americans-the Post reports that 70 percent of 911 calls come from mobile phones. But more than a convenience, the ability to text instead of call could have its own benefits, such as in scenarios where placing a call would endanger a person.

In a press release, the FCC gave the already three-year-old example of the shooting that took place on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007.

"The technological limitations of 911 can have tragic, real-world consequences," read the statement. "During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 911 that local dispatchers never received. 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 also plans to allow automated sensors, such as chemical detectors and other alarms, to alert 911, Wired reported.

In August 2009, an emergency call center in the basement of a county jail in Iowa became the first to accept text messages sent to 911. "I think there's a need to get out front and get this technology available," Thomas Jennings, the county's police chief, told Wireless Week at the time. In addition to enabling people to send more discreet pleas for help, he added that the service was a benefit to the county's "deaf and hard-of-hearing residents."

Hopefully, Washington will soon catch up with Iowa, despite having larger hurdles such as logistics and costs to overcome.

More recently, the FCC has been focused on text messages for a different kind of warning. It would like that nation's wireless carriers to alert customers, via text message, when they're about to exceed the minutes or data in their contract agreement and incur additional fees. Approximately 30 million Americans, found a study commissioned by the FCC, have unhappily faced these unexpected fees, or what's known as "bill shock."

Genachowski, proposing the practice to the five-member commission, called it a "21st-century solution."