In a move that will likely elicit a "why didn't they implement that sooner?" response, Verizon in the next 12 months will begin implementing a "text to 911" feature that, as the name implies, will enable users to contact 911 operators via text message to report an emergency. The feature will be particularly helpful for the hearing and/or speech impaired, and for folks who find themselves in dangerous situations where making a voice 911 call isn't advisable.
Beginning in early 2013, Verizon will start rolling out the feature in various metropolitan areas before progressing to a nationwide rollout soon thereafter.
The nation's largest carrier announced its "text to 911" plan last week, with Verizon Wireless VP Majorie Hsu noting in a press release, “Verizon is at the forefront of 911 public-safety innovations, and today’s announcement is another step in making SMS-to-911 service available to those who cannot make a voice call to 911. Our company is continuing its long-standing commitment to address the needs of public safety and our customers by offering another way to get help in an emergency by using wireless technology.”
In many respects, this move has been a long time coming, and something the FCC has been championing for a few years.
Back in August 2011, the FCC announced a concrete multi-tiered plan to upgrade current 911 call centers to allow operators to not only receive calls, but text messages and photos as well. Operators on the new system would also be able to more precisely locate a user's location.
Before that, the need for text-to-911 functionality was tragically made apparent in the wake of the 2007 shootings/massacre at Virginia Tech, where a student killed 32 people and wounded 17 in what would become the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history.
In 2010, when the FCC first announced its plan to revamp America's 911 service, it articulated how text-to-911 capabilities might have curtailed the number of casualties at Virginia tech.
"The technological limitations of 9-1-1 can have tragic, real-world consequences,” the FCC explained in a press release. “During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 9-1-1 that local dispatchers never received. If these messages had gone through, first responders may have arrived on the scene faster with first-hand intelligence about the life-threatening situation that was unfolding.”
With approximately 70% of all 911 calls originating from mobile phones, it stands to reason that 911 centers should be upgraded to align more properly with the features of today's mobile phones - from texts and photos, and perhaps even streaming video.
So with that said, it's nice to see Verizon taking the lead on text-to-911 functionality. Of course, such a vast overhaul does entail significant upgrade costs for 911 call centers, and some cities have been slower to implement those upgrades than others.