During the recent Virginia Tech University shootings, students used their cell phones to communicate via text messaging and to inconspicuously snap photos of unfolding events.

Such information would have been useful to law enforcement officials who were hunting the killer, but because there's no way to transmit text messages, photos or videos to operators when calling 911, police officers couldn't access the evidence.

This could soon change. 

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in January 2007 that his city would develop a system that allows emergency 911 centers, and eventually 311 centers, to receive digital photos and videos from callers.

Other localities and states also want to improve the level of information collected by 911 call center operators.


A Better 911
The concept of a system that will allow digital photos to be sent directly to 911 call centers was unveiled at the association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) annual conference in August 2006.

The company behind the system, PowerPhone, a Connecticut-based crisis communications training and consulting group, has been at work in the lab refining the software. Public safety answering points (PSAPs) - county or city agencies responsible for answering 911 calls for emergency assistance - could be accepting photos from 911 callers by next year.

"It's a positive step forward toward the next generation of 911 systems," said Patrick Halley, government affairs director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). "My understanding is we're not quite where you can dial 911, take a picture, push a button and send it off to a 911 center while you're still on the phone. We'd like to get there, and that's certainly what our organization and the standard folks are looking at."

Other jurisdictions are also looking into such a deployment. Indiana call centers have tested the concept with sent text messages, but are still in the research mode. In Tennessee, some call centers can receive digital photos, but they must first go to an IT person's e-mail address before they are sent to the 911 call center. Right now, that's about as close as it gets to such a system.

"The current plan is you call 911 and say you have a photo of a criminal or a crash or whatever it is, and they say, â??OK, text message it to this address,'" Halley said. "Then you do it and call back. That's not ideal, but it's definitely a positive step to getting us to where we need to be."


Software on the Way?
The improved version of the PowerPhone system, called Incident Linked Multimedia (ILM), is slated for preview at the August 2007 APCO conference, according to Greg Sheehan, director of marketing for PowerPhone.

"What we've done to our first iteration of the technology is made some modifications based on the agencies we've talked with that are interested in using it to better accommodate their needs," Sheehan said. "We found that the original concept of the product is good, but we're trying to build a little more into the product. We're in discussions with several people who are interested in piloting the software."

Sheehan said as soon as the software is ready, PSAPs with ILM can accept digital photos or videos directly from 911 callers. "There's that perception that you have to wait for a next-generation 911 system to be developed," he said. "That's really not the truth. You need an Internet connection and a computer on one end to receive it, then you can receive those photos at your 911 center."

When deployed, the system will work like this:

A 911 call comes into a PSAP, and the caller describes the problem and reports that he or she can send a photo to the PSAP.

The PSAP call handler will send a text message to

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor