The Federal Communications Commission has announced plans to upgrade the aging 911 emergency response system in the US. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski briefed members of the APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) at an annual conference in Philadelphia yesterday regarding a five step action plan to improve the deployment of next-generation 911 (NG911).

Key to the NG911 initiative is the ability for users to send texts, photos and video streams directly to 911 operators, all of which could be very useful for first responders.

Late last year, the FCC issued a similar statement on the importance of next-generation communication methods, citing the Virginia Tech campus shooting as one event that exploited the current system's weakness.

"During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 9-1-1 that local dispatchers never received. 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."

911 operators receive over 650,000 calls per day and over 240 million per year. Nearly 50 percent of these originate from mobile phones, but according to Genachowski, data received from cell phones isn't nearly as valuable to dispatchers as landline calls.

Part of NG911 is to adopt a public safety broadband network based on 4G LTE technology. As with most government programs, getting things into motion can take a lot of time and there is no set timetable for NG911 implementation.

"The shift to NG9-1-1 can't be about if, but about when and how. I recognize that it's going to usher in a lot of changes - changes that will present many challenges," said Genachowski. "The FCC will work with you to make sure this new system will allow you to keep doing your jobs well, and to make sure that this new system works for the American people. The stakes couldn't be higher."

The current 911 system was implemented in 1968 and has remained relatively unchanged since. In 2001, call centers adopted technology that helps dispatchers locate mobile phone callers using GPS and cell-tower data.