The Federal Communications Commission is looking to update the 911 emergency service, enabling it to handle text messages, as well as video and mobile messages from mobile phones.
Bravo. It's about time.
At a speech just outside Washington this morning, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that 450,000 of the 650,000 calls placed to 911 daily come from mobile phones, according to reports. He called the system "efficient" and "reliable," according to news reports. But, clearly, 911 can be more efficient and more responsive if there were alternative ways to get information.
Sure, that increased efficiency and responsiveness comes in the form of being able to give the dispatcher more information about the incident being reported in the form of video or photos. It also gives the person reporting the incident an alternative way to communicating in the event that the noise at the incident location makes it hard for either party to hear. And, of course, a text message doesn't require a long-term connection like a phone call does. It only needs a signal long enough for the message to go out.
Finally, there's the example of incidents where a text message is the safer alternative - the 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. Quoted in a Los Angeles Times blog post, Genachowski said:
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. 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.
But there's another reason why alternative messaging to 911 is more efficient:
If you've ever come across an incident on a busy highway and emergency officials aren't on-site yet, your natural instinct is to call in and report it. But chances are that that's the natural instinct of the person in front of you, behind you, in the next lane and so on. Before you know it, 911 dispatchers are handling dozens of calls all reporting the same incident.
Talk about inefficiency.
Instead, one dispatcher could scroll through incoming text messages and dismiss duplicates quickly, without the call network becoming clogged or wasting valuable time fielding call after call. Certainly, I'm not condoning texting and driving to report highway accidents. But a passenger could send that text.
The matter is expected to be discussed further at the FCC's December meeting. Changes like this won't happen overnight - the FCC will need to open the discussions to public comment and then vote on any changes.
But getting the discussion started is a good first step.