Ready to text-message 911?

FCC seeks to blend cellular and digital communications into the 911 system of the future

The Federal Communications Commission is exploring how to integrate cellular and digital communications into a Next Generation 911 emergency communications system that would be able to handle video and data as well as voice. It has issued a Notice of Inquiry seeking ideas.

AT&T set aside “911” as a national emergency call number in 1968 and since then the service has been upgraded to provide information about the location of the caller and accommodate some cellular and IP communications. But the functionality of consumer communications has outstripped the ability of public safety agencies to take advantage of them.

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FCC’s National Broadband Plan calls for encouraging “innovation in the development and deployment of Next Generation 911 (NG 911) networks and emergency alert systems.” The commission has taken a step toward that end with the notice, seeking public input on implementing NG 911 and moving public safety communications beyond traditional voice-centric technologies.

“In the telecommunications industry overall, competitive forces and technological innovation have ushered in an era of advanced IP-based devices and applications that have vastly enhanced the ability of the public to communicate and send and receive information,” the notice states. “At the same time, our legacy circuit-switched 911 system is unable to accommodate the capabilities embedded in many of these advanced technologies, such as the ability to transmit and receive photos, text messages and video.”

The current 911 service includes a basic service that sends calls to the appropriate Public Safety Answering Point, and enhanced, or E911, service that also provides information about the location of the caller and a call back number.

Both services use the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network wireline service, but the use of wireless cellular communications has grown rapidly in this country since the introduction of 911. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than half of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 live in households without wireline phones, and, overall ,27 percent of U.S. households are cell phone only. FCC reported that 70 percent of all 911 calls now are made from mobile phones.

In 2000, FCC adopted an order establishing 911 as the national emergency telephone number for both wireless and wireline phones, and established requirements for accurately locating callers using cellular phones. The next step in the evolution of 911 was the introduction of voice over IP services, and in 2005 the FCC required interconnected VOIP service providers to provide E911 capabilities as a standard feature.

These requirements expanded to use of 911 voice communications to new platforms, but no provisions have been made to enable the use of text messaging, photos and video. The next generation would take 911service into the 21st century using an IP-based architecture rather than PSTN. This would require upgrading the infrastructure for delivering communications to the answering point, as well as upgrading answering point equipment to handle digital data alongside voice.

Photos and video could provide important information to first responders, and NG911 also could enable automated emergency alerting from sensors or other devices. Text messaging could be an effective, potentially safer way of making an emergency call. The bandwidth required for texting is considerably less than that used by voice, so during emergencies when infrastructure might be damaged or overloaded, texting often is the best, and sometimes the only, way to communicate.

Texting sometimes is the best way for persons with disabilities to communicate, and in some situations a caller might be able to text when making a voice call would be dangerous.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in announcing the Notice of Inquiry, cited the 2007 shootings on the Virginia Tech Campus as an example of the need for NG911. “Some students and witnesses tried to text 9-1-1 during that emergency, but those messages never went through; they were never received by local 9-1-1 dispatchers,” he said in prepared statement.

In its notice, FCC is seeking information and comments over the next 45 days on:

  •  Potential media types to be used by NG911;
  • Consumer privacy issues, particularly related to the sharing of personal electronic medical data;
  • Development of technical and policy standards;
  • Consumer education and awareness; and
  • Inter-governmental coordination and coordination within the public safety community.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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