911 May Soon Allow Texts, Photo Messages

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Texting is quick and easy, most cellphone users prefer it to making voice calls, and in an emergency situation it may very well be safer than talking aloud to an operator. So why doesn’t 911 accept text messages?

The Federal Communications Commission has been wondering the same thing, and it looks like the agency is doing something about it.

In an address Wednesday at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski laid out a plan for revamping the 911 system. Noting the widespread use of text messaging and the fact that “almost 100%" of cell phones have photo and video capability, Genachowski said that he intends to make the emergency response system compatible with all three technologies.

“In an emergency, people are going to reach out for help with whatever means of communications they are accustomed to using,” he explained. “For a growing number, it's texting, which, unbelievable as it is, the current system doesn't support.”

In addition to the convenience of text messages, Genachowski also theorized that civilians could use their camera phones to transmit photos and videos of injured people or of crimes in progress.

The new features would be part of what the chairman dubbed “Next Generation 911,” though he was quick to say that such a system wasn’t imminent. While some cities are already able to receive text messages, he expressed fear that without coordination, implementation would be patchy at best.

As usual, one of the biggest sticking points is money, and Genachowski acknowledged that Congressional action is necessary both to fund the new system and to make sure states don’t use their 911 funds for other purposes. Given the discord on Capitol Hill right now, it may be a while before we’re able to text our local 911 operator.

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