Rebooting 9-1-1: Emergency hotline has texting option in works

9-1-1: It’s the first thing that pops into your head during an emergency. It’s a phone number kindergartners are taught to memorize the first day of school, and it’s plastered all over police cars and fire trucks.

It’s also an outdated system.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to allow the public to text and send pictures and videos to America’s 9-1-1 centers to report emergencies. This is in response to an increasingly wireless American public that, according to the FCC, uses a cell phone to make 70 percent of the 650,000 daily 9-1-1 calls.

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC, said in a press release the current 9-1-1 system doesn’t suit the communication tools of the future.

“Even though mobile phones are the device of choice for most 9-1-1 callers, and we primarily use our phones to text, right now, you can’t text 9-1-1,” Genachowski said. “It’s time to bring 9-1-1 into the digital age.”

Robert Kenny, a spokesman for the FCC, said the FCC commissioners will vote on Genachowski’s plan on Dec. 21. If approved, the FCC will seek public comment on a digital 9-1-1 system.

Kenny said there are a number of potential issues that will have to be addressed before the system would be put in place, including retraining 9-1-1 call center personnel, ensuring that texts are actually received by emergency services and pinpointing an accurate location of the texter.

“Text messaging may be valuable to persons with disabilities and those who might compromise their life and safety through voice communications but who may attempt to reach 9-1-1 in emergencies,” Kenny said in an e-mail.

In the past, it seems many younger Americans assumed 9-1-1 centers already accepted texts.

“During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 9-1-1 that local dispatchers never received,” the FCC’s press release said. “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.”

But some have questions about the benefits of texting in an emergency.

Chris Gorski, a junior in the College of Health Sciences, said sending a text to 9-1-1 would only be beneficial in certain situations, such as in the Virginia Tech shooting described above. Other than that, Gorski said, texting would just slow down the process.

“If you want to get something done quickly, you call someone, you don’t text them,” Gorski said. “It would probably take a long time to text your exact location, describe the situation and state your emergency.”

Kenny said modern society expects its phones to be able to send pictures and videos to friends and family. This technology can be used to paint a better picture of the emergency for policemen, firefighters and paramedics.

“Our goal is to determine if these same technological advances in broadband can be built into next generation 9-1-1 systems and increase the opportunities for people in need of help in emergencies to reach 9-1-1,” Kenny said.