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In the future, you'll be able to text and send videos to 9-1-1

"It's hard to imagine that airlines can send text messages if your flight is delayed, but you can't send a text message to 9-1-1 in an emergency."
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

"One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy..." -- Ernestine

Almost everyone in America knows about, and to some degree, counts on the 9-1-1 emergency service. Whether it's reporting a crime, a fire, or a serious accident or health condition, 9-1-1 is the way to get help, fast.

You may not realize it, but 9-1-1 was an international response to the removal of human operators from telephone calling.

In the early days of telephones, from the early 20th century up to about the mid-1950s, if you wanted to make a call, you'd always have operator assistance. You'd actually talk to a human person, who'd connect you with other human people, and the call would be placed.

This is where the legend of the operator as a gossip came from. The thing was, if you were ill, needed a doctor, had a fire, or any other emergency, you'd just pick up the phone, tell the operator what was wrong, and she (it was almost always a "she" back then) would connect you to the right service. The phone user didn't have to remember a number to dial.

But human operators got expensive as more and more phones were installed. It just wasn't practical to scale the phone system and use operators, and that's why some of the earliest computers were complex telephone switching systems. In fact, some of the earliest shortest-path algorithms were designed for telephone systems.

The problem, then, was that people couldn't easily remember a different number for each emergency service. The U.K., Canada, and the U.S. all realized this was a problem, and all went about finding a solution. Eventually, in the late sixties, the U.S. and Canada settled on 9-1-1 as a quick and easy-to-remember number.

9-1-1 had two important characteristics. It was quick to dial and easy to remember, and it transmitted your location to the emergency provider. It's this location awareness that has been causing problems for 9-1-1 since landlines went the way of the buffalo and we all started relying on IP telephony and the cellular network.

And that's why, today, although you can send a text message to your electrician, a picture of an item in a store to your husband, or a video of the puppy falling asleep to YouTube, you can't send any of this rich media information to an emergency responder.

That, hopefully, is about to change.

In a speech before the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials in Philadelphia yesterday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced plans to radically expand 9-1-1 coverage.

In his speech, Chairman G stated:

It's hard to imagine that airlines can send text messages if your flight is delayed, but you can't send a text message to 9-1-1 in an emergency. The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency response communications has not kept pace with commercial innovation has not kept pace with what ordinary people now do every day with communications devices.

It is hard to imagine. It's weird, also, to think that just because you're using something like Google Voice, you can't call 9-1-1.

Genachowski announced a five-step plan to remake 9-1-1:

  1. develop automatic location accuracy mechanisms for NG-911
  2. facilitate the completion and implementation of NG911 technical standards for the hardware and software that carriers and public safety answering points (PSAPs) use to communicate NG911 information
  3. work with state 911 authorities, other Federal agencies, and other governing entities to provide technical expertise and develop a coordinated approach to NG911 governance
  4. develop an NG911 Funding Model focused on the cost-effectiveness of the NG911 network infrastructure linking PSAPs and carriers, and
  5. enable consumers to send text, photos, and videos to PSAPs

The only gotcha? There's no timeline. It's a good idea, it's long overdue, but without a solid timeline and an actually funding commitment, the chairman's plan is only just so much talk.

We'll believe it when we see it.

As Ernestine might say, "Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?"

The image used at the beginning of this article was from the Lily Tomlin album "This Is A Recording" (Polydor, 1971)

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