Digital 911 Takes Crime Fighting Cellular

The phrase "In case of an emergency, call 911" could someday soon become as antiquated as the rotary phone.

Several major U.S. cities, including New York and Los Angeles, are exploring a new technology that would allow citizens to send cell phone pictures and video through the cities' 911 system.

The software, developed by the Connecticut-based company PowerPhone, is not in use yet, but many cities see it in their futures.

"The sooner the better," Lt. Bill Schwartz of the Miami Police Department told ABC News. "We're living in an age where information is instantaneous. Why shouldn't law enforcement take advantage of that?"

In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to install a system that could receive cell phone photos and video. The Los Angeles Police Department announced a similar plan Tuesday, also saying it was researching technology that would allow people to send text messages to 911.

"We want to be able to accept data and correlate that data with a particular emergency event," LAPD analyst Karen Bottancino told ABC News.

By December, the LAPD hopes to be able to accept solicited cell phone photos, Bottancino said. Under this system, a 911 caller would receive a text message from the operator and would reply to that message with the photo attached.

Greg Sheehan, a spokesman for PowerPhone, told ABC News that with the software, called Incident Link Multimedia, 911 call centers could also receive unsolicited pictures through e-mail addresses that would be advertised by city police departments.

"It makes it very easy for them to get that photo to the 911 center," Sheehan said. "In an emergency where seconds count that's very important."

Sending Perp Photos

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik told ABC News that pictures would be very helpful to officers responding to a scene with a fleeing perpetrator because they are a dramatic improvement over witness descriptions.

"Pictures don't lie," Kerik said. "If you have a picture, and you can transpose that picture into a car, and officers can get a real-time, real-life photo, then officers are going to know what they're looking for, and that's the best."

Sgt. Lee Sands, a spokesman for the LAPD, agreed that pictures of a crime scene from cell phones would help officials catch perpetrators.

"Video would give detectives a starting point," he told ABC News. "I think it would expedite investigations a lot better."

Pictures and video that relay details and the full impact of situations would also be helpful in coordinating different response units if necessary, White Plains, N.Y., Public Safety Commissioner Frank Straub told ABC News.

"You can have simultaneous dispatch of multiple services to one incident," he said. "It's clearly the way to go. Having the advantage of an image is tremendous."

Schwartz said that the text-messaging feature, which is not part of PowerPhone's latest software, according to Sheehan, would be particularly helpful during crimes such as robberies or kidnappings, when an assailant is still near a victim.

"If someone can safely indicate through whatever means possible their situation without the bad guy knowing about it, we would be in a better position to help them," Schwartz said.

But Kerik said he was wary of the use of text messages to report violent crime.

"I can't see them dispatching a car based on a text message," Kerik said. "An operator wants to know if there's a shooting, is there a victim? How many suspects are there? That won't come over a text message, and that's going to put officers at risk."

But Sands said that, like the pictures, text messages to 911 would be a "starting point" for law enforcement to respond to a situation.

Digital Crime-Fighting Conversation

"If you text a 911 operator, automatically you and that 911 operator are linked up, which means they're going to text back the number that came up on their screen," he said. "The operator is going to be able to text back the person to have a conversation back and forth."

Straub, who said White Plains dispatches emergency vehicles even on 911 hang-ups, told ABC News that sending an initial text message that lacks information was better than no information at all.

"If I just had a choice between no call and a text message, clearly I would choose the text message," he said.

Bottancino said the LAPD did not yet have funding for the intended updates announced Tuesday.

"We have a five-year plan, and it all depends on funding and technology," she said.

Sheehan said that PowerPhone was discussing the use of this latest software, which was unveiled in August, with several major U.S. cities, but that none were using it yet. He declined to name any of the cities PowerPhone was talking to, and he said price would vary from city to city, depending on the size.

"There are a lot of things that need to develop before it becomes the standard nationwide, but I can tell you that the industry is definitely pushing forward in that direction," said Ken Lowden, executive director of Indiana's Wireless Enhanced 911 Board.

Indiana's one of a handful of states with or working on E-911 systems. Right now, Lowden says, the focus is on getting accurate triangulation of cell phone signals for emergency situations so they can find citizens in distress. If someone is in danger and calls 911, an E-911 system could give officials exact coordinates from where the call was made.

But Lowden says they're hard at work to develop a system that will allow civilians to send images and video along with their emergency calls. "We just had a meeting yesterday with some engineers and a cell phone company [Centennial Wireless]," he said. "And we've been testing with another cell company to do text messaging."

Though Lowden admits the program will take some time to get up and running, he says that the incorporation of images and video to a 911 system can only make a city, and its citizens, safer.

Schwartz said he thought people would catch on quickly to using new technology to provide 911 operators with more information.

"I think we have entered an age where people are starting to think more and more digitally," he said. "I think they'll quite naturally start to consider communicating with police departments that way."

People already want to take advantage of technology during emergencies, Sheehan said.

"You have a lot of people wondering why they can't send photos to 911 centers already," he said.