The Federal Communications Commission wants to bring the 911 emergency service into the 21st century with new technologies such as text messaging and automatic alerts.
In a speech Tuesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said it "is time to bring 911 into the Digital Age." He said this was important, as more and more people in the United States use cell phones. Text messaging, in particular, is an important feature to add to 911 call centers, he said.
About 70 percent of 911 calls already come from mobile phones, he said. And as more people text instead of talk on their phones, it makes sense to add texting capabilities to the 911 emergency service. Texting is also particularly helpful for people who have disabilities.
The chairman also noted during his speech that there are also times when talking on the phone to a 911 operator could put the caller and others in more danger. A good example of this was the Virginia Tech campus shooting in 2007. Students tried to text police by sending 911 text messages, but they were unable to reach help.
Other elements that the FCC would like to see added to 911 service include allowing video and photos to be sent to call centers. This could help first responders get a better feel for what is happening on the ground at an emergency. Next-generation 911 service would expand the multimedia capability of the call centers.
The FCC is also proposing the use of automatic alerts that would allow cameras, environmental sensors, personal medical devices, and other gadgets to notify 911 call centers without any human intervention. This could help first responders get to a chemical spill or highway accident much faster.
Chairman Genachowski plans to introduce a proceeding in December to seek comment from the public on improving 911 services with new technologies.