In the future, callers to the 911 system in New York City will be able to include digital images and video to support their verbal descriptions of an incident, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his “State of the City” address.

“If you see a crime in progress or a dangerous building condition, you'll be able to transmit images to 911, or online to nyc.gov,” Bloomberg said. “And we'll start extending the same technology to 311 to allow New Yorkers to step forward and document non-emergency quality-of-life concerns, holding city agencies accountable for correcting them quickly and efficiently.”

While considerable money has been spent in New York and other parts of the U.S. to allow public-safety answering points (PSAPs) to provide location-aware E911 service for cell phones, those upgrades have not enabled law enforcement to leverage an ever-popular feature in the mobile devices — cameras that can transmit pictures and video from a scene. According to one market study, 50% of all wireless phones have cameras today, and 87% are expected to have cameras in 2010.

To date, no city in the world has 911 call centers equipped to receive digital images and video from devices such as cell phones and computers, Bloomberg said. The New York City proposal likely will not be completed this year, said Jason Post, the mayor's deputy press secretary.

“It's a multiyear project, and there is not a timetable,” Post said. “The city is looking for vendors that can implement the project.

“We know the technology exists. The trick is integrating it into our 911 and 311 systems. All reports will start with a 911 or 311 call, and then the video or picture will augment that call. So we have to marry the image to the call, and that's what we're going to have to figure out how to do.”

According to Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association, a 911 or 311 caller, based on current technology, would need to indicate to the call taker that images or video are available. Then, the call taker would send a text message to the wireless number used to place the call, after which the caller would attach the data file(s) to a reply message. Finally, the call taker would pull the images or video into the PSAP's computer-aided dispatch system to associate the data with the call report, and then transmit the call report with the attached images or video to first responders in the field.

Ideally, the images or video would be transmitted directly to the PSAP without any interim steps, Hixson said. “That's exactly what we've designed into the architecture for next-generation 911,” he said. “We have intended, since Day 1, that PSAP's would be able to support multimedia over the IP-based network that supports NG911, with the right bandwidth to allow that to happen.”

New York City averages 30,000 calls to 911 and 40,000 calls to 311 each day, Post said. City officials will try to take steps to ensure that new picture and video services do not increase the number of false reports received, he added.

“We get a lot of those, and we do take action against people we catch doing it, and the same would apply to an image or video, but you could arguably say it's even easier to detect,” Post said. — With reporting by Glenn Bischoff