FCC Updating 911 for the Texting Generation, SRSLY
By Ryan Singel
November 22, 2010
In a bid to bring the life-saving emergency service 911 into the 21st
century, the FCC is looking at letting citizens report crimes through text
messages and even stream video from their mobile phones to emergency
Established as a national standard in 1968, 911 handles more than 230
million calls a year — 70 percent of which now come from mobile phones.
The last real overhaul of 911 by the FCC came in 2001, when mobile carriers
were required to allow 911 to identify the location of callers either
through GPS or cell-tower data. In the middle of the decade, some internet
telephony companies were also required to implement 911 calling that would
route emergency calls to the appropriate local center — a non-trivial task
given the mobility of laptops and equipment using voice-over-internet
But the 911 system still can’t handle text messages, multimedia messages or
streaming video, all of which could be very helpful to first responders. A
system that could handle those messages would also allow people to report
crimes without being overheard, which could be useful in situations ranging
from kidnapping to seeing someone being robbed on the street.
In a press release announcing Tuesday’s changes, the FCC pointed to the
now-infamous shooting rampage at Virginia Tech as an example of how a more
modern system could be useful.
“The technological limitations of 9-1-1 can have tragic, real-world
consequences,” the release said. “During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus
shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 9-1-1
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 pinging of 911 by sensors, including
chemical detection sensors, alarm systems, medical devices and systems like
On-Star in automobiles.
It’s not clear yet where the money will come from for the upgrades, whether
they will be federal requirements states and cities must carry out or if
they will simply be suggestions. It’s also unclear whether Facebook’s new
Messages service will let you send a note to 911 straight from your Facebook
page or mobile app (that’s a joke, sort of).