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Soon, you'll be able to send text, video 911 messages

The Federal Communications Commission is working on a plan so that everyone with a mobile device can reach 911 in case of an emergency, no matter what the means: text message, video, photo, voice call. And the FCC wants what it calls "Next Generation 911" to be able to determine what location your message is being sent from with accuracy.

"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," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

At the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials conference in Philadelphia, Genachowski unveiled the plan that the commission will need to coordinate with many local, state and federal government agencies. (You can read the FCC's press release about it here.)

"The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency response communications has not ... kept pace with what ordinary people now do every day with communications devices," Genachowski said. "The shift to NG 911 can't be about if, but about when and how."

The next step is for the agency to figure out how to "accelerate NG 911 adoption," which includes getting the funding needed for it. These days, that will be no small matter.

But, Genachowski said in a speech to the public safety group, "Only one month away from the 10th anniversary of 9/11, our first responders still don't have an interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety. Our 911 call centers still can't handle texts or pictures or video being sent by the phones that everyone has."

Imagine, he said, "if an incident commander had instant access to multiple video streams and sources of information during an armed robbery," or if someone was in a car accident: "With NG 911, somebody in the car could send pictures of injuries and the scene to 911, which EMTs could review in advance. Once on scene, EMTs could send critical information back to the hospital, including on-site scans and diagnostic information, increasing odds of recovery."

Dispatchers would be able to "access hospital capacity data, real-time road and traffic conditions, and video of the crash scene from traffic cameras to decide who to dispatch and where crash victims should be transported."

It's a tall order, but one the FCC chairman is determined to achieve.

The agency recently strengthened its Enhanced 911 location accuracy rules, Genachowski noted, by "requiring all wireless carriers to meet more stringent metrics."

He said that "more and more 911 calls" are being made from cellphones — about 50 percent now — "but the location information you receive for mobile is not nearly as good as what you receive for a landline 911 call."

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