At a press event today, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Julius Genachowski announced the agency will begin tackling the creation of a Next Generation 911 (NG911) network, highlighting what the FCC calls the “life-saving potential of text, photo, and video in emergencies.” Genachowski invoked the 2007 students murders at Virginia Tech (VT), claiming students tried to text-messsage 911 during the incident, a claim not supported by the official after-action report of the incident. In a press release, the FCC also claimed, “If these messages had gone through, first responders may have arrived on the scene faster with firsthand intelligence about the life-threatening situation that was unfolding.” That claim is disputed by the official state report—officers arrived within three minutes, what the report says was an “extraordinarily fast response.” In their statements, the FCC and Genachowski focused the intent of NG911 on broadband, handling wireless 911 calls and the goal of having comm centers accept photos, videos, data and text messages, despite an industry study that concluded that text messages are “impractical” for emergency reporting. The other advantages of an IP-based 911 network were omitted from the FCC’s material, including network redundancy, flexible comm center back-up, nationwide transfer and improved data handling. Genachowski’s speech and the FCC press release sparked widespread reporting in the news media that focused solely on text messaging, further leading the public to believe such a feature is essential, or even practical.
During his speech at the Arlington County (Virg.) Emergency Center, Genachowski said, “Today’s 911 system doesn’t support the communications tools of tomorrow.” He noted the 650,000 calls to 911 each day, with about 70 percent originating from cellular phones.
Genachowski said, “You can’t text 911.” Then for emphasis, he added, “Let me reiterate that point. If you find yourself in an emergency situation and want to send a text for help, you can pretty much text anyone except a 9-1-1 call center.”
Genachowski continued, “The Virginia Tech campus shootings in 2007 are a tragic, real-life reminder of the technological limitations that 9-1-1 is now saddled with. Some students and witnesses tried to text 9-1-1 during that emergency and as we know, those messages never went through and were never received by local 9-1-1 dispatchers.”
He claimed that, “Broadband-enabled, Next-Generation 9-1-1 will revolutionize emergency response by providing increased means of communications—including texting, data, video, and photo—which will improve situational awareness and rapid response.”
Genachowski briefly noted the advantages of NG911 for those with disabilities. But he then returned to the central theme, saying, “Next-Generation 9-1-1 will allow a caller to transmit a photo of a car leaving the scene of an armed robbery.”
He conceded that, “Modernizing 911 raises complex challenges that will take not only time, but also significant coordination.” It will require the help of federal, state and local agencies, public safety, lawmakers, communications and broadband service providers, and equipment manufacturers, Genachowski noted.
The FCC will initiate a NG911 proceeding next month, he said. “It is an important first step,” Genachowski said.
Both the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and National Emergency Number Association (NENA) issued statements supporting Genachowski’s announcement, but also noted that standards for advanced information have not been developed.
In a press release, APCO applauded Genachowski’s leadership. “APCO International recognizes that advances in consumer technology are laying the groundwork for heightened public participation in emergency reporting and raising the public’s expectations about what our country’s public safety agencies can do with text messages, videos and photos when they contact 9-1-1.”
But APCO cautioned, “While this information is very important to emergency services, it should be acknowledged that our country’s public safety answering points are still developing a standardized method of collecting and disseminating this information to the most appropriate response teams during an emergency.
APCO also said that efforts to build a NG911 network, “must also be managed in close coordination with efforts to build a nationwide public safety broadband network.”
NENA praised Genachowski for supporting NG911. Association president Steve O’Conor said, “The implementation of NG9-1-1 systems will serve the best interest of our nation by providing public safety professionals with the resources necessary to utilize 21st Century technologies to respond more effectively to emergencies.”
O’Conor also alluded to a lack of standards for handling advanced data. “NENA thanks the Chairman and his staff for their dedication to promoting Next Generation 9-1-1, and looks forward to working with the Commission and leaders at all levels of government to address the technical, operational, policy, and funding issues surrounding the building and maintenance of NG9-1-1 networks and systems,” O’Conor said.
Virginia Tech Reality
In April 2007 32 students and faculty of Virginia Tech were shot and killed by a “disturbed young man,” according to the final official state report on the incident written by a panel of experts and consultants. Over a period of just 11 minutes, Seung Hui Cho shot 49 students and teachers on the second floor of the classroom building, and then killed himself when he heard police entering the building.
Despite repeated claims in the press that text messages might have expedited a police response, the report notes that several officers were already nearby because of Cho’s earlier murders, arrived quickly, immediately realized it was an active-shooter incident and moved rapidly into the building.
In fact, nowhere in the 210 pages of detailed timelines and accounts of the incident is text-messaging mentioned, nor is there any conclusion that reporting of the incident by victims or witnesses was delayed or impaired by the lack of 911 text-messaging capabilities.
Instead, the lessons learned from the incident were focused on improved emergency planning, better administration of the campus alerting network, and active-shooter training for law enforcement.
The report sets out the timeline of the mass shootings, saying Cho began shooting at about 9:40 a.m. on the second floor of Norris Hall, and the first 911 call was made at 9:41 a.m. A Blacksburg police dispatcher fielded the call and within 60 seconds transferred it to the VT police comm center, where it was immediately broadcast. Gunfire could be heard on the logging tape, so the dispatcher immediately knew there was active shooting. Officers arrived at Norris Hall at 9:45 a.m., just four minutes after the first 911 call.
Officers immediately formed up an active-shooter team, but could not immediately enter the building because Cho had chained up all the main entrance doors. The team breached a secondary door with a shotgun, and one minute later the state incident report said Cho fatally shot himself, probably in response to the police entry. A second team of officers quickly arrived and entered the building, and both teams then swept the classrooms. By 10:08 a.m. the building was secured and medical teams were performing triage on the victims. Just 27 minutes had elapsed between the first 911 call and a secure scene.
An August 2010 survey conducted by the Red Cross found that the public may be ready for text messaging 911, even if the technology is not. The survey focused on the use of social media for emergency alerting, but also asked respondents how they might report emergencies.
Over half said they would send a text message to a response agency to request help if they knew someone else was in danger. The survey found that 35 percent would post an assistance request on an response agency’s Facebook page if someone was in danger, and 28 percent would try to Twitter an agency for help.
The survey found that 69 percent of respondents believe response agencies should monitor their Web sites and social media sites to promptly respond for requests for help.
SMS 911 Reality
In October 2010 the wireless industry group 4G Americas published a White Paper that studied the use of short message service (SMS), or text messages, for emergency communications. The group noted that SMS was never designed or intended to be a real-time communications service, and had notable limitations for delivering emergency information.
There is no way to intelligently route SMS to the nearest public safety answering point (PSAP), it has no security mechanisms to prevent spoofing, has no delivery confirmation or guarantee standard, provides no location capabilities, and cannot be prioritized for emergency service. SMS messages themselves are limited to 160 characters, although some applications are able to link several messages together to exceed that limit.
Download (pdf) the 4G Americas report on 911 SMS here.