Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has long said he wants the public to be able to contact emergency officials by text message, and on Wednesday he announced plans to establish technical standards that could govern these programs across the country.
The agency will launch a rulemaking proceeding next month to create technical standards for wireless companies and public safety agencies who offer so-called "Next Generation 911" services, an idea that Genachowski has supported as a centerpiece of his public safety agenda.
The goal is to enable the public to contact emergency officials through their cell phones, sending texts, photos, and video. Efforts to make that possible are occurring on a piecemeal basis in communities across the country.
The FCC thinks it can speed that process along and make it safer by examining possible technical standards for wireless carriers and emergency agencies who launch these services.
Genachowski said next generation services are long overdue at a conference of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
"It's hard to imagine that airlines can send text messages if your flight is delayed, but you can't send a text message to 9-1-1 in an emergency," Genachowski said, according to prepared remarks.
"The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency response communications has not kept pace with commercial innovation - has not kept pace with what ordinary people now do every day with communications devices. The shift to [Next Generation 911] can't be about if, but about when and how."
Next month's FCC proceeding will ask for input on how to make the program technically feasible on a widespread basis. For instance, the proceeding will ask how sturdy a community's broadband infrastructure must be to support the bandwidth demands of the new services.
Some communities have already set up trial programs. The Durham Emergency Communication Center in North Carolina already accepts 911 text messages from Verizon Wireless customers.
The FCC says the services could be available across the country in five to ten years.
The "next generation 911" program is a feather in Genachowski's cap on Capitol Hill, where the NG911 Caucus strongly supports the effort.