Could Being Able to Text 911 Save Lives?

FCC pushes to modernize call centers, but real problem may be lack of funding.

March 27, 2011— -- When a gunman was prowling the halls of Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007, on a shooting rampage that left 33 people dead, dozens of students and staff sent texts to 911 trying to get help.

But those texts were never received, because the local 911 center -- like most across the country, including ones in major cities -- could only handle basic phone calls.

An estimated 240 million calls are made to 911 in the United States each year. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 70 percent of them are wireless calls -- made from devices that can also send valuable information in the form of texts, pictures and video.

"Funding has just simply not been able to keep 911 centers current with 21st century technology," said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). "Most of the 911 centers across the country today are stuck in the 1960s and 1970s technology."

More and more people are found to be in situations where they can't speak or are in danger if they make noise, like in the Virginia Tech massacre for instance.

As a result, in November 2010 the FCC began a push for a campaign to overhaul the 911 emergency system to allow users to text 911 during times when picking up a phone and dialing the police might not be a safe option.

You might be surprised at who's leading the way to the 21st century -- rural Black Hawk County, Iowa where the population is 130,000 -- about 14 percent of the population of New York City.

It's the only place in the entire country where dispatchers have the technology to respond to emergency text messages.

There is little doubt that texting 911 could save lives in cases when making a phone call is dangerous or impossible.

Being able to text to 911 saved the lives of 17-year-old Tom Mulvaney and his grandfather, when their canoe capsized in icy water. Their cell phones didn't work to make calls, but somehow they could still text.

"I couldn't see them, couldn't hear them. I just knew they were there through texts," said Corie Mulvaney, Tom's mother.

She was able to call 911 after receiving Tom's text messages and help arrived.

Some officials are wary of texting's downside, however, and suggest trying to stick to the old fashion way first.

"You could just imagine someone who is nervous trying to text on a cell phone," said Jose Santiago, executive director of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management. "You could make a lot of mistakes, you're not getting that vital information quickly and that's why a phone call is so important."

Chicago recently added technology that allows police to receive cell phone photos, but only after people call 911 first.

The United Nations' International Telecommunications Union says that about 200,000 texts messages are sent every second, and for some people this is their main form of communication.

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