the caller's cell phone - while the caller is still on the line - requesting the photo.

The caller replies to the message with the photo attached. The photo is then stored and can be sent to first responders as they head to the scene.

"We're designing our software to get photos to the 911 center and then allow them to route it where they think it needs to go, kind of like the phone company," Sheehan said.

 

Safeguarding from Pranksters
One difficulty will be ensuring legitimate callers can transmit vital data without delay, while making sure the data is actually useful and that pranksters don't flood the PSAP with bogus images.

"There's a process where you have to be able to verify what's being sent in [and] make sure the picture is timely - maybe somebody is sending a picture from two months ago," said Nicholas Sbordone, spokesman for the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. "There are a lot of questions we have to work out to make sure that we're getting timely information and appropriate information. Those are the kinds of things we're sorting through now."

Sbordone said the technology fits with Bloomberg's theme of a more transparent, accessible and accountable government. "On the public safety side, it makes sense to be able to text things in real time," he said, adding that the cost of the project has yet to be determined.

The capability will be part of the next generation of 911, Halley said. "When [NENA] started, our mantra was, 'One nation, one number.' Now we're sort of adding, 'Any device, anywhere, anytime.' But there's got to be some limitations on what devices and what information is appropriate. We have to figure out operationally how to design a system so only the information we want, or that is authorized, is sent. You don't want anybody to be able to send anything they want."

He said part of the solution is modernizing current 911 systems, and public safety officials know full well that more and more people use text messages and send each other pictures snapped by cell phones. PSAPs are hindered by the limitations of the existing, circuit-switched analog system, and 911 systems aren't designed to receive packets of data with photos, he said.

The challenge facing 911 call centers is to find a way to address current technology with old 911 systems.

"How do we modernize our 911 systems' inherent limitations to get to where we have a more robust IP-based system," Halley said, "so there is a possibility of sending video, text, pictures, into 911 without having to do all these work-around solutions?"

Stay tuned.

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