Communications regulators urged adoption of new technologies that would allow people needing emergency help to send text, photos and video messages to police and rescue dispatchers.
While sending multimedia messages over mobile devices is commonplace with the smartphone boom, the country's 9-1-1 emergency system only supports voice calls.
In an emergency, consumers should be able to reach out for help with whatever means of communications they are accustomed to using, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said at an FCC meeting on Thursday where commissioners agreed to issue the proposal.
Allowing first responders to assess emergencies through photos and videos of an incident before they even arrive could be a huge leap forward.
A few years ago this technology may have sounded like science fiction, but today it's increasingly available for commercial purposes, Genachowski said.
But it is not clear how soon the technology could be deployed given tight budgets at every level of government. Most 9-1-1 call centers are funded by a combination of state and local subsidies.
The FCC estimated it would cost $2.68 billion over 10 years just to establish a suitable national network. By consolidating call centers and sharing more infrastructure, that could be shaved to $1.44 billion.
Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell urged his colleagues to examine all potential costs. As we all recognize today, money is either unavailable or tightly managed.
Still, one 9-1-1 upgrade, the ability to send text, might arrive sooner. Genachowski said companies and emergency call centers are already testing technologies that could be ready within a year.
The FCC on Thursday also agreed to seek comment on whether it should prioritize 9-1-1 traffic, in light of network congestion reported after the East Coast was hit by an earthquake and hurricane last month.
The next generation 9-1-1 proposal is part of the agency's broad public safety agenda. Genachowski unveiled a five-step plan last month, including emergency multimedia messaging, automatic location accuracy mechanisms and technical standards for equipment, that could make widespread next-generation 9-1-1 services available in the next five to 10 years if adequate funding is available.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)