Established as a national standard in 1968, 911 handles more than 230 million calls a year — 70 percent of which now come from mobile phones.
The last real overhaul of 911 by the FCC came in 2001, when mobile carriers were required to allow 911 to identify the location of callers either through GPS or cell-tower data. In the middle of the decade, some internet telephony companies were also required to implement 911 calling that would route emergency calls to the appropriate local center — a non-trivial task given the mobility of laptops and equipment using voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP).
But the 911 system still can’t handle text messages, multimedia messages or streaming video, all of which could be very helpful to first responders. A system that could handle those messages would also allow people to report crimes without being overheard, which could be useful in situations ranging from kidnapping to seeing someone being robbed on the street.
In a press release announcing Tuesday’s changes, the FCC pointed to the now-infamous shooting rampage at Virginia Tech as an example of how a more modern system could be useful.
“The technological limitations of 9-1-1 can have tragic, real-world consequences,” the release said. “During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 9-1-1 that local dispatchers never received. 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 also plans to allow automated pinging of 911 by sensors, including chemical detection sensors, alarm systems, medical devices and systems like On-Star in automobiles.
It’s not clear yet where the money will come from for the upgrades, whether they will be federal requirements states and cities must carry out or if they will simply be suggestions. It’s also unclear whether Facebook’s new Messages service will let you send a note to 911 straight from your Facebook page or mobile app (that’s a joke, sort of).