If our 1968-vintage emergency-number system were enabled for the newer ways we communicate, it could work a lot better — and cost a lot less.
Among the many services state and local governments provide, few are as popular, as trusted or as essential as 9-1-1. Americans place roughly 240 million 9-1-1 calls each year, says the National Emergency Number Association, and access to 9-1-1 is nearly universal. Nevertheless, the system so many Americans rely on today to report emergencies and other problems stands on the brink of obsolescence.
While Americans are now accustomed to using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social-media platforms for the rapid-fire sharing of news and information, most 9-1-1 systems can’t handle the texts, videos, data and images that we increasingly use to communicate.
That’s because in many parts of the country 9-1-1 is still rooted in the landline-telephone-based infrastructure that gave the system its start in 1968. As of November 2014, just 152 counties in 18 states even had the capability for citizens to text to 9-1-1. And only a handful of states — such as Iowa and Vermont — have taken the leap to Internet-enabled 9-1-1, known as “Next Generation 9-1-1.”