9-1-1 Gets a 21st-Century Makeover

Last week FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski introduced an updated 9-1-1 system which allows emergency responders to receive calls using mobile technologies. In December, said Genachowski at a public safety event in Virginia, the FCC will consider restructuring the 9-1-1 system with a broadband-enabled dispatch system capable of utilizing SMS, photos, automated calls, and videos. He explained:

Broadband-enabled, next-generation 9-1-1 will revolutionize emergency response by providing increased means of communications -- including texting, data, video, and photo -- which will improve situational awareness and rapid response... With today's advances in commercial mobile broadband technologies, consumers are using their phones less to make calls and more for texting and sending.

Although specifics haven’t been developed yet, Laptop Magazine has some insight into what this Next-Gen system will look like:

“Call centers will be allowed to receive texts, expand their multimedia capabilities, and pave the way for emergency calls to be accepted by devices in addition to people. These devices will also include environmental sensors such as highway cameras, security cameras, alarms, personal medical devices, telematics, and consumer electronics in mobiles.”

There’s little doubt that an update to the existing 9-1-1 format is long-overdue. Seventy percent of the 230 million emergency calls made every year come from mobile phones, and allowing people to call for help with the efficiency and discretion of an SMS could have life-saving consequences.

Still, the new system will bring with it new challenges. Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott believes that call centers could easily be “overloaded” by a flood of text messages and data, requiring an increase in staffing at dispatch centers. Homeland Security Bureau Chief Jamie Barnett, speaking alongside Genachowski in Virginia, explained that implementing this new system across the country will require a “coordinated team effort” among a variety of players ranging from lawmakers, public safety officials, and telecom companies. The costs associated with NG9-1-1 are also a little daunting; although Genachowski provided no figures, a 2008 Department of Transportation estimate expects the project to cost up to $87 billion over twenty years.

Next-Gen 9-1-1 is only the most recent of a slew of innovations seeking to incorporate mobile technology into emergency response strategies. A professor at UMD-College Park hopes to roll out a new system which encourages students to use their smart phones to submit videos to campus police during emergencies. The Chronicle of Higher Education explains this new Video 9-1-1 system:

[Video 9-1-1] will enable callers to stream sights and sounds from the scene to dispatchers. The emergency app will also draw on GPS and other location technology available in many phones to pinpoint the call sources, then use surveillance cameras around the university to get a comprehensive pictures of what's happening on the ground. In addition, dispatchers will broadcast the information to first responders watching live video feeds on laptops en route to the scene.

Catchy as it may sound, Video 9-1-1 has some serious roadblocks to work around. Dr. Ashok Agrawala, the project’s leader, needs to raise $150,000 to get a pilot program launched at College Park. Like the FCC’s new system, Agrawala must also get mobile carriers and emergency responders on board, and his team also must make the downloadable software work on BlackBerry, Android, and iPhone OS without glitches. But Agrawala and his colleagues are optimistic; Jay Gruber, Assistant Chief of Police at UMD-College Park, says, “I honestly think [Video 9-1-1] is going to change the way 9-1-1 information is received across the country.”

Next-Gen 9-1-1 and UMD’s mobile video project reveal a growing and potentially life-saving trend in incorporating mobile tech in security, but the challenges they face reveal why it may take years, if not decades, to transform emergency response systems in the United States. For example, four years ago Nokia submitted a U.S. patent request for a similar mobile SMS/video emergency reporting system, but years later the project failed to get traction, no doubt due to rapid evolution in mobile technology and the massive challenge of implementing the system across platforms, operators, and devices. Still, Genachowski’s announcement makes clear that the future of 9-1-1 emergency response will rely heavily on emerging mobile innovations.