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Texting `SOS’ to 911

Officials in the United States and other countries are exploring ways to let people send text messages to emergency dispatchers.
August 19, 2011

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.

The nation’s 911 centers are generally eager to upgrade their systems, says Rick Jones, the operations issues director at the National Emergency Number Association, which represents these centers. Jones has been overseeing research to help his members make the leap—the costs of which have yet to be fully determined.

Some adults have told Jones they fear losing the emotional connection they get from talking to someone, the sort of emotional connection that might be critical in an emergency. Then a focus group he held with teens told him just the opposite: “They were convinced emotions come through better in text than voice,” Jones says.  As a result, he says he thinks texts should be routed to special 911 operators: “I need people who are able to text that emotion.” 

Today’s 911 system is undeniably archaic. The way the 911 system works “has essentially not changed since the first 9-1-1 call was made in 1968,” according to a fact sheet from the Department of Transportation, which is helping upgrade the system through its Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

The 911 system’s ancient architecture does give it one major advantage: it’s difficult if not impossible to hack, especially from overseas, according to the Internet Engineering Task Force group, which is studying how to transform the circuit-switched system into a modern IP-based one. Any effort to upgrade the system to integrate cellular and Internet technologies will inevitably make it easier for anyone from black-hat hackers to al-Qaeda terrorists to take the system down. 

Countries around the world face similar challenges in building more modern but still secure emergency-response networks. In Norway last month, Julie Bremnes survived unharmed, silently texting her mother every five minutes until the police arrived. Norway’s prime minister has now launched an investigation into how the police response could have been improved. Would lives have been saved if the police were able to text directly with the people they were coming to rescue?