The four largest carriers in the United States have agreed to make nationwide texting to 9-1-1 possible by May, 2014. The goal is to improve 9-1-1 services and their infrastructure in a way that is compatible with public needs.
The current 9-1-1 system is voice-only. This means that a person must make a voice call to 9-1-1 in order to receive emergency help. In some emergency situations, this may be extremely difficult. For instance, those who are hearing- or voice impaired cannot reach out and make a phone call the way the rest of the general public does. There are also emergency situations where it could be dangerous to make a voice call, for instance a home invasion or robbery. The system in place is not capable of handing SMS, images or video. Right now, a text or image sent to 9-1-1 will go nowhere.
During Hurricane Sandy many people attempted, and failed, to reach emergency services using SMS and special apps. Read about how the E9-1-1 system was not designed for the modern communications age.
Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) is a new initiative that aims to improve the emergency response systems’ infrastructure to make it possible for these sorts of data to be sent across the network. Mobile carriers are also working to make this functionality a priority. According to Robert Kenny, who handles the FCC's media and public relations, and spoke with BYTE's Todd Ogasawara about Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) in late 2010, 9-1-1 call centers in the U.S. handle over 650K calls a day.
Furthermore, there is a generation of users more accustomed to using text messages and sending video or photos than making voice calls. Kenny mentioned the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a gunman shot and killed 32 people and wounded 15 others before committing suicide. Many sent text messages to 9-1-1, but they went nowhere. It's unclear whether those persons assumed the messages would reach emergency dispatchers, or if they were in a situation where they were within earshot of the killer and risked putting themselves in danger by making a voice call. Regardless, those text messages were not received. In hopes of improving the situation in the interim, carriers have agreed to automatically send a bounce-back that tells the person to make a voice call to 9-1-1, reports the Wall Street Journal.
There are also test runs in place in some markets by carriers AT&T and Verizon. The Journal reports that in one case a suicide was prevented and in another, authorities responded to a case of spousal abuse. In the latter, it's easy to imagine how a voice call to 9-1-1 could have resulted in further injury to the victim.
The FCC is also planning to talk to consumers of other carriers about how to make it possible to reach emergency services.