The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday took the first step toward updating the nation's 911 emergency dialing system to receive text messages, pictures and videos, in addition to voice calls.
The FCC voted to launch a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, to create a next-generation 911 system that would allow mobile phone users to send text messages, pictures and videos to emergency response agencies by dialing 911.
An updated 911 system will help police and fire departments better respond to emergencies, said James Barnett, chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.
"The ability to send text messages, photos and video clips has become commonplace for users of mobile devices, but our legacy, circuit-switched 911 system does not support these forms of communication," he said. "Adding these nonvoice capabilities to our 911 system will significantly improve emergency response, save lives and reduce property damage."
In response to the U.S. East Coast earthquake Aug. 23, the FCC's NPRM also will seek public comment on whether to prioritize 911 calls during emergencies, when mobile phone networks are often overloaded. In an NPRM, the FCC seeks public comment on possible changes to agency policy.
Many people aren't aware that the 911 system can't handle text or pictures, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
"Today, if a mobile phone user attempts to send even a simple text to 911, it goes nowhere," Genachowski said. "That's what happened to the students at Virginia Tech who texted 911 during the terrible shooting several years ago."
It's time to modernize the nation's 911 system, said Michael Copps, an FCC commissioner. U.S. mobile phone users increasingly prefer texting instead of voice calls, he said. "Today's consumers might rightly wonder, what's next-generation about texting?" he said.
In some situations, a voice call to 911 may put the caller in further danger, Copps added. "Texting is sometimes the only safe option in cases where making a call may mean risking a life," he said.
The NPRM asks the public for short- and long-term options to enable texting on the 911 system, and it asks for long-term options for sending pictures and video clips. The FCC also will ask for input on its role in accelerating new 911 capabilities, and for ideas on how to educate the public about the capabilities and limitations of 911 during the transition to the additional services.
Also during Thursday's FCC meeting, the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau presented a paper estimating the network connectivity costs of a nationwide next-generation 911 system to be between US$1.4 billion and $2.7 billion.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.