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During last month’s harrowing ordeal on a small Norwegian island, in which hundreds of teens were trapped with a rampaging murderer, text messages proved a speedy, silent, and safe way to raise the alarm. In one exchange translated by the Associated Press, 16-year-old Julie Bremnes texted her mother: “Mum, tell the police to hurry. People are dying here!”

“I am working on it, Julie. The police are on their way. Do you dare give me a call?”

“No. Tell the police that a madman is running around shooting people. They have to hurry!”

Since Americans first gained the ability to call a 911 operator in 1968, the emergency service has saved countless lives. But now nearly 30 percent of homes lack a landline and almost everyone has a cell phone, and federal officials say many more lives might be saved if citizens communicating with 911 operators could use their mobile phones’ full capabilities, including sending text messages, pictures, or videos that could aid police and rescue workers.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, believes tapping the full power of cell phones will dramatically improve emergency responses. Last week he announced a five-step plan to upgrade the 911 system; the ability to send texts, photos, and videos is the second step. (The first step: getting phones to automatically send their location to 911 operators.)

“It’s hard to imagine that airlines can send text messages if your flight is delayed but you can’t send a text message to 911 in an emergency,” Genachowski said in a prepared statement. “The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency-response communications has not kept pace with commercial innovation—has not kept pace with what ordinary people now do every day with communications devices.”

A few Americans can already text 911. In 2009, customers of i wireless, a T-Mobile affiliate in Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first group. Last week Verizon Wireless customers in Durham, North Carolina, became the second. People in Durham were advised to use the capability only when phoning 911 is not possible, and not to send emergency texts from outside Durham County, lest their messages be received by an unprepared dispatch center.

The early trials are ironing out some of the kinks. Motorola’s original Droid phones, for instance, don’t like sending texts to three-digit numbers like 911 and will garble the accompanying message until the user downloads a software patch.

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