In the Future, Will People Simply Text '9-1-1' for Help?

Yes, if the FCC has anything to say about it

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In an effort to bring 911 emergency response "into the 21st century," the U.S. government wants to create a system where 911 call centers can field text and video messages from imperiled citizens. "Today's 911 system doesn't support the communication tools of tomorrow," FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said Tuesday. "We primarily use our phones to text, [but] right now, you can't text 911. It's time [for] the digital age." In the blogosphere, the announcement spurred both excitement and pessimism over a national emergency response overhaul:

  • This Could Be Really Helpful, writes Tom Keating at TMC Net:
With the plethora of cell phone cameras, sending a live video stream could be extremely helpful to first responders. Further, if it's a shooting situation, kidnapping, or bank robbery, the cell phone user may not be able to speak for fear of harm, but could be able to to silently text or send video.
  • A Big Time-Saver for Police, writes Sam Diaz at ZDNet:

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.

  • Virginia Tech Shootings Inspired This Change, writes Brennon Slattery at Computer World:
Many students attempted to send text messages to 911, which could not process SMS messages.

"If these messages had gone through, first responders may have arrived on the scene faster with firsthand intelligence about the life-threatening situation that was unfolding," the FCC wrote in a press release.

  • I'm Skeptical, writes Stefan at IntoMobile:

SMSing an emergency, it just sounds a bit too open for abuse. Isn’t the whole point of a 911 call for an operators to calm you down and even offer some practical advice while you wait for help to arrive? What’s a dispatcher going to text you to make you feel alright while you’re watching a loved one in pain?

How would you ensure that 911 operators weren't overloaded by a barrage of random text messages? That was among the topics of a recent NG9-1-1 forum, where transportation and public-safety officials discussed ways to prioritize the potential flood of voice calls, text messages and other info to ensure that first-responders would get only the "actionable information" they needed, when they needed it.

  • We're Still a Long Way Away from This, writes Jeffrey Van Camp at Digital Trends:

The problem with such propositions is that they’re expensive. Integrating this functionality in all local response centers around the United States will be costly and time consuming. Obtaining proper funding for this task is the first step, but even before that local first responders will be asked what kind of information they’d like to have in a digital 911 service.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.