The scenario is all too common on the crowded streets of New York: A car crashes into another, confusion ensues and a slew of people at the site call 911 to offer the same or similar information.
Now the city wants to broaden the 911 system to accept digital photos and video clips of accidents and crimes. But the expansion of the massive 911 system, which already handles roughly 11 million calls a year, raises questions about what to do with all that data.
"It sounds like a good idea because it's technically doable and because it makes sense and other areas are doing it," said Alan Reiter, a wireless data consultant. "The downside is getting swamped with photos."
City officials say they're not worried about their ability to process all the digital images — or the possibility that hoaxes might trip up dispatchers.
"We're managing information all the time," said John Feinblatt, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator. "If somebody calls up and gives us words, we're assessing those words. Something that we do every day is judge the authenticity of the report and the veracity of the report."
The New York initiative, announced in January, will involve equipping 911 facilities with the necessary technology to accept the photos and videos, which often may come from individuals' cell phones. The city also intends to upgrade its non-emergency services through the 311 information hot line, which gets about 14.6 million calls a year.
New York officials do not yet have a timetable or cost estimates for implementing the technology, though Feinblatt said there "definitely will be a million at the end" of the price tag of the multiyear effort.
In adding image capability, New York City will be at the forefront of governments upgrading emergency-response systems to take advantage of the wireless age, joining states like Indiana, Tennessee and Vermont in working to enhance their systems.
Indiana, for instance, is in the early stages of planning and is still examining how incoming pictures would be managed. Officials want to first make sure the networks can handle the files.
"Your message will not go through until the bandwidth is there," said Ken Lowden, executive director of the Indiana Wireless Enhanced 911 Board. "If the bandwidth is really tight your picture's gonna sit there."
Paul Cosgrave, New York City's information-technology commissioner, said city systems are unlikely to need a major upgrade to handle the incoming digital data.
In theory, a witness to an emergency could directly send a picture or video to a dispatcher in what some call an "open" system.
But the leading technology at the moment is less direct: A person must call a dispatcher first and receive instructions for transmitting an image.
PowerPhone, a 911 technology and training provider, says its technology gives dispatchers control over which images are accepted. The Connecticut-based company is talking to New York City and other, smaller municipalities seeking the capacity, said Greg Sheehan, a PowerPhone spokesman.
"With our system, you can tie the photo or video to an incident report," Sheehan said. "Whereas if you have an open system you're going to have problems managing that system. ... There could be fraud. It could be also used as misdirection. Putting in a trained and seasoned 911 dispatcher, though, minimizes the chances."
Feinblatt, who said the city is in talks with vendors he wouldn't name, said dispatchers would need to be trained on making the right calls on photos and video.
He said he would rather have witnesses contact dispatchers directly before sending in images because the voice communication will enable a faster response. He said the digital images could come later to enhance crime-fighting and other responses.
In a hit-and-run incident today, a witness may see only a few numbers on a license plate and get a rough description of a car, Feinblatt said.
"Compare that to getting a description of a hit-and-run and a photograph of the car," he said. "The bottom line is that we're going to be able to apprehend somebody much more quickly."
But Adina Schwartz, professor of law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police should be wary about relying too heavily on the public for catching crimes on digital devices. If a person takes video of a crime in progress, that video may not be admissible in court unless the person is willing to testify and "authenticate" the material, she said.
So while the technology may get a lot of the buzz, experts said, its ability to improve emergency response and crime-fighting will depend on well-trained human beings.