By Barry Levine / Mobile Tech Today. Updated November 23, 2010.
Could lives have been saved during the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shootings if trapped students and teachers could have texted or sent video to 911? The Federal Communications Commission thinks so, and the agency said Tuesday that it's looking at changes to update the emergency phone number.
The 911 standard, set in 1968, currently receives about 70 percent of its 230 million calls annually from mobile devices, but the system is not set up to handle text messages, photos or streaming video.
'Desperately Tried To Send Texts'
"The technological limitations of 911 can have tragic, real-world consequences," the FCC said in a statement. It noted that students and other witnesses during the 2007 shooting "desperately tried to send texts to 911 that local dispatchers never received." If those messages had been received, the agency said, "first responders may have arrived on the scene faster with firsthand intelligence about the life-threatening situation that was unfolding."
Texting allows victims and witnesses who cannot easily speak, such as in a kidnapping, hostage-taking, or robbery, to convey their emergency to authorities. Photos and video would similarly be able to silently communicate, and convey information that might otherwise be difficult, such as the number of assailants, their positions, and so on.
Additionally, callers who are deaf or have hearing problems could be better served with a text-based option.
Plans also include the ability for sensors, such as chemical detection sensors, alarm systems, medical devices and OnStar systems in cars, to automatically send signals to 911 in case of emergencies.
Media-Receptive 911 'Inevitable'
As technological habits and capabilities change, the 911 system has adapted. In 2001, the FCC required mobile carriers to identify callers' locations through GPS or the nearest cell towers. Several years ago, Voice over Internet Protocol services were compelled to route emergency calls to the nearest 911 emergency center -- even though "location" in the cloud can be a challenge.
Some call centers, such as one in Waterloo, Iowa, are currently testing prototype systems. PowerPhone, a Madison, Conn.-based provider of emergency call-handling systems, announced in August that it was granted a patent for its Incident Linked Multimedia software that enables the transmission of text, photos and video through wireless carriers to 911 centers.
Laura DiDio, an analyst with Information Technology Intelligence Corp., said using text messages, photos and videos to communicate with 911 is "inevitable." She pointed out that any public emergency is accompanied by people recording it with their smartphones, and that is information emergency personnel could use.
In fact, DiDio said, the intense competition among smartphones makes it "very likely" some makers are going to emphasize the ease of use and features their smartphone offers in the event of emergencies.