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Send a text message to 911? With photos and video? It could happen, FCC chairman says

November 23, 2010 |  9:43 am

The Federal Communications Commission is considering updating the 911 system to allow cellphone users to send a text message, photo or video to the emergency service.

"911 is an indispensable, lifesaving tool," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "But today's 911 system doesn't support the communication tools of tomorrow. Even though mobile phones are the device of choice for most 911 callers, and we primarily use our phones to text, right now, you can't text 911. It's time to bring 911 into the digital age."

Genachowski, who introduced the ideas during a speech at the Arlington County Emergency Center in Arlington, Va., said about 70% of 911 calls are made from mobile phones.

"The current 911 system is efficient and reliable -- handling more than 650,000 calls a day," he said in his speech. "Well, 450,000 of those calls are made from mobile phones. With today's advances in commercial mobile broadband technologies, consumers are using their phones less to make calls, and more for texting and sending pictures."

Texting is also a particularly useful form of communication for people with disabilities, Genachowski said.

The FCC chairman also mentioned that the ability to text 911 could useful be in a situation such as the Virginia Tech shootings.

"If you find yourself in an emergency situation and want to send a text for help, you can pretty much text anyone except a 911 call center," he said. "The Virginia Tech campus shootings in 2007 are a tragic, real-life reminder of the technological limitations that 911 is now saddled with.

"Some students and witnesses tried to text 911 during that emergency, and as we know, those messages never went through and were never received by local 911 dispatchers."

Genachowski also said that next-generation 911 services should allow for emergency calls to be placed by devices such as security cameras, alarms and consumer electronics in automobiles in the event of emergencies such as chemical leaks, personal medical emergencies or car accidents.

Of course, changes to 911 of any sort, much less those Genachowski envisions, can't be done overnight and not without an FCC vote.

No one at the FCC has introduced the 911 updates as an official policy proposal, but Genachowski said in his speech that the ideas would be under discussion during the commission's December meeting.

The issue would also have to be made available for public comments before a vote by the FCC.

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

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