The 9-1-1 on Adding Texts, Video and Photos to Emergency Communications

Carl Weinschenk

Of course, enabling texting and the delivery of video and photos in the 9-1-1 system-which the Federal Communications Commission is thinking of doing-is a good idea, a no-brainer.


InformationWeek reports that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said that the idea of equipping 9-1-1 emergency centers with the ability to handle these forms of communications is under consideration. The upside is huge: Not only will people be able to contact the centers more easily, but photos and videos can alert first responders, medical personnel and other experts of what is happening. Texting also would be a huge advance for people with disabilities that preclude them from speaking. The story says that 30 million Americans fall into this classification.


This is a good step, but it is important to understand how much work needs to be done on the entire emergency system. Whenever a disaster occurs-manmade or natural-communications between people and emergency organizations, and between one organization and another invariably breaks down. In the aftermath, everyone calls for fast action. And, generally, nothing is done.


The world of emergency communications is a complex and interesting blend of new and old. The old includes shortwave "ham" radio operators. This story points out-rather proudly-that the shortwave folks often are pressed into service during emergencies when the "johnny-come-lately" networks buckle.


There is a role for the newbie networks as well, however. This story at Firehouse reports that a survey by the American Red Cross found that 20 percent of 1,058 adults use e-mail, websites and social media if they don't reach 9-1-1. Significant percentages said they would ask social network compatriots to make appropriate contact to authorities if they couldn't themselves, and they would tweet or post on the Facebook page of the appropriate emergency organization.


Just as in non-emergency communications, there is a point at which there is too much information. At Oklahoma State University earlier this month, 20,000 calls went out to people who had signed up to an emergency alert system. The message told of a shooting near the campus. The story does a good job of describing the confusion that followed. The point is that pointing to an emergency but not providing adequate follow-ups and an all-clear can be dangerous. The takeaway is that plans must be carefully laid out-from start to finish.


While Genachowski's comments on 9-1-1 were positive, it is possible to see the delay in implementation of the next version of the emergency alert system (EAS) as a negative. The original date-180 days after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) adopted a standard for Common Alerting Protocol messages-was March 29, 2011. It now will be Sept. 30, according to Broadcasting & Cable. Hopefully, the reason for the delay-which was announced last week-is to provide participants with "greater flexibility," which is the reason given by Admiral James Barnett, the chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.


Despite the delay, the FCC seems to be on the case. Hopefully, the processes of developing the new EAS system and upgrading facilities to work with 9-1-1 and other communications tools will be smooth and enable the system to fulfill its mandate during subsequent emergencies.

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