FCC commissioners today unanimously approved a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking input on the framework of next-generation 911 (NG-911) systems that would enable multimedia access to emergency call centers and prioritization of 911 calls on commercial networks.

Unlike many notices of proposed rulemaking, this one does not include draft rules but instead asks for input on a number of issues. All commissioners noted the importance of migrating the current 911 system that handles only voice calls to an IP-based, NG-911 architecture that would let public safety answering points (PSAPs) receive emergency communications via text messaging and — later — photos and videos.

Chairman Julius Genachowski noted the situation of Jennifer Koon, a New York woman who was carjacked and murdered in the 1990s. During the incident, Koon called 911 but wasn't able to speak, because she did not want to be heard by her attackers. She was found dead two hours later.

"The ability to text 911 might have saved her life," Genachowski said during the meeting, which was webcast. (See related video below.)

Unlike the 1990s, many in the current generation of mobile-device users are more comfortable using text as their primary communications option than traditional voice paths, Commissioner Michael Copps said.

"We have to get beyond thinking about critical communications as just traditional voice and realize that consumers don't make a lot of these distinctions among services and technologies that so often seem to fixate us and stymie us here in Washington, and especially they don't make them when they are in trouble and need action fast," Copps said. "Indeed, today's consumers might rightly wonder: What's so 'next generation' about texting?"

While the FCC order seeks input on short-term and long-term answers to incorporating text messaging into the 911 system, Genachowski said the greatest promise of NG-911 is the ability for emergency callers to also send images and video to PSAPs, which could forward these, CAD mapping and other database information to provide first responders with a better understanding of the situations impacting response to an incident.

"A few years ago, this technology may have sounded like science fiction, but today it's increasingly available for commercial purposes," Genachowski said. "Innovators are developing these technologies for first responders — from complex database access to mapping to gunshot sensors and other sensors — and the fundamental goal of today's notice is to accelerate the development and deployment of these technologies as part of our emergency-response communications infrastructure."

In addition to the focus on next-generation 911 technology, the FCC notice also seeks information whether commercial carriers should be required to give 911 calls priority over other calls on the network.

"I look forward to hearing about the feasibility and the good that could come from prioritization, but we must also remember that not all critical emergency communication is 911-bound," Copps said. "What we do not want is a system that would have the unfortunate effect of preventing us from checking on our children, parents, and other loved ones during a time of crisis. I look forward to learning more about how we can balance these important considerations."

Related Video

During the Sept. 22 Open Meeting, FCC commissioners vote to open proceeding on next-generation 911 implementation and prioritizing 911 calls on commercial networks.

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