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Need to reach 911? Soon you can send a text

Molly Wood Aug 12, 2011
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Although no one was sending and receiving text messages just a few years ago, they are a fact of life today. Many young people, in particular, send hundreds of texts per day. It’s a widespread, very popular form of communication.

But if you want to reach 911 for emergency assistance, you still have to use a phone. That’s because the 911 system hasn’t adapted. Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC, says that will soon change. This week, he announced a five-part plan to update the emergency response system so that it can receive text messages, photos and videos.

It’s a move that will bring the system more in line with modern communications but will have other advantages as well. In an emergency situation where someone is not free to talk but does have their hands free, help can be sent. It would also be a big step forward for hearing-impaired people. Additionally, the phone and video component could help police. Rather than describe a suspect, users could simply take a picture and send it along, with that information then available to law enforcement.

Genachowski says to get there, “We need to develop standards so that technology is efficiently being built for NG911 communication across country and ensure sufficient bandwidth so that the 911 operator centers actually can get all of the digital data that would be coming in. And we need to efficiently fund upgrades.”

A pilot program to incorporate text messaging with 911 is under way in Durham, N.C. James Soukup, director of The Durham North Carolina Emergency Communications Center, says, “Residents of Durham who are customers of Verizon can punch in the numbers 911 and hit send. That text will go right to a 911 communications officer just like any 911 telephone call. From there, there can be dialogue going back and forth until a conclusion is reached and response is sent out.”

But why is this limited to Verizon customers? “Verizon is the one with the technology now,” he said. “We would love other carriers to do this, but other carriers haven’t developed the technology. Some major carriers have come out and said that they never intend to, which I think is wrong and those of us in the 911 industry — not only myself but across the nation — think that is wrong. So hopefully, this will change their mind and more will start to develop methods so we can get them on board.”

Also on this show, John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants talks about his favorite app for retrieving obscure soul music (and any other kind of music), Shazam.

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