Rulemaking on 911 Texts Coming Soon, FCC Says

Legwork is complete on the first draft of regulations implementing a "next-generation 9-1-1" system that can accept text messages, a Federal Communications Commission official told lawmakers Friday, adding that commissioners' approval is all that is needed.

"I know it's very high on the chairman's list and on the commissioners' lists, so we're hoping it will be out before the end of the calendar year, maybe significantly before that," FCC Public Safety Chief James Barnett told a House panel on emergency preparedness.

The growing prevalence of texting has led many people to presume they can text information about emergencies to 9-1-1, but only a fraction of local emergency officials are prepared to accept texts, officials have said.

During the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, for example, several people who were hiding from the student gunman and afraid to make noise later reported that they'd texted the emergency number, Barnett said.

The improved 9-1-1 systems also will likely be able to accept photo texts from callers, so they can gather more information about a situation before ambulances and police are dispatched, Barnett said. This feature also could be useful for disabled people who are unable to speak clearly when an emergency occurs.

Making 9-1-1 centers reliably text-accessible will require new technology, and rolling the program out too hastily could cause more harm than good, wireless industry spokesman Christopher Guttman-McCabe told the same House panel Friday.

A caller always knows when she's speaking with a 9-1-1 operator and exactly what information has been conveyed, he said. A text, on the other hand, can take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes to reach its target and there's no way of ensuring it's gone through unless you receive a response text. Meanwhile, precious minutes could be wasted at the scene of an accident, he said, while bystanders presume authorities have already been alerted.