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Bringing 911 Into the 21st Century

If anyone from my local police department’s dispatch center is reading this, please accept my apologies. I called 911 by mistake recently as I was recording my CBS News Tech Talk segment about the Federal Communications Commission’s goal to “bring 911 into the 21st century.”

I thought it would be cool to start the broadcast out with the touchtone sound of dialing 911, so I turned on my telephone recording equipment and dialed the number and quickly hung up. Seconds later, someone from the police department called me to make sure that I was OK. Even though it was a false alarm, the callback was exactly what they are supposed to do.

Though I was sorry to bother them, I was happy to know that a caring professional was ready to respond even to a call that didn’t go through. At least in this community, 911 is staffed by people whose job it is to respond to the needs of other people.

No one is suggesting that type of personal service should go away. However, if FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski gets his way, not only will people talk with people, but machines will learn to dial 911 to talk with other machines.

That’s because one plan is to enable devices to report emergencies. It could be a smoke detector calling the fire department, a security camera reporting an intrusion or medical device sensing that a person has lost consciousness and needs help.

There is some precedence from private sector response companies.

General Motors’ OnStar service, for example, is able to send emergency data directly from the car to the call center. Other companies sell or rent medical devices that people wear to alert people to falls and other emergencies.

In addition to enabling machines to report alerts, the FCC also wants to let people use their fingers — in addition to their voices — to call for help. As any parent of teens can testify, young people are making fewer calls and using their mobile phones more to send text messages, photos and video.

About 70 percent of 911 calls come from mobile phones but there’s no way to send a text to 911. Some people have tried texting 911 in vain.
It happened at Virginia Tech in 2007. At the Tuesday press conference, Genachowski said “some students and witnesses tried to text 911 during that emergency. And as we know, those messages never went through and were never received by local 911 dispatchers.”

The Virginia Tech situation is one of many times when it might have been impossible or unsafe for someone to actually speak to a 911 operator. The same could be true in a hostage or domestic violence situation when picking up a phone is simply not an option.

There are also people with disabilities who have trouble talking on the phone but are able to send text messages. And there is also the issue of a picture or a video being worth a thousand words. If someone witnesses an accident, a crime, a fire or other emergency, it might be helpful to send pictures or video to first responders so that they know what they’re up against.

While it’s hard to argue against 911 operators receiving text messages, I do worry that texting can be one-way. If you reach a 911 operator on a voice call, you know that the call went through and get assurance that help is on the way. In some cases, the operator can help you deal with the emergency by providing advice, such as how to administer first aid.

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