When the Federal Communications Commission isn’t busy trying to kill the free Internet, it’s trying to make sure that consumers don’t encounter obscenities in daytime television or can communicate with each other in new and interesting ways. The agency has always been better at the former than the latter, but it announced today the partial success of its efforts to make sure that people can message emergency dispatchers instead of having to rely on phone calls.
The only problem, as others have pointed out, is that the feature isn’t available in all states or counties. Unless you’re willing to send a text message that might never reach the people who send sirens and blinking lights to your doorstep, you’re probably going to be calling them for the foreseeable future. This should have been a victory for the FCC — instead, it’s another example of the agency’s inability to make rules that will immediately help many consumers.
Most people shouldn’t rely on text messages to reach emergency dispatchers anyway. As CNET notes in a report on the tool’s limitations, explaining an emergency in a text message can take longer than explaining it with a phone call, and many centers can’t yet handle a large influx of messages. Being able to bang out a plea for help on a smartphone might appeal to a generation with an almost compulsive need to avoid real conversations, but it’s not ideal for emergencies.
But the FCC said that it wanted the tool to be available nationwide by now, largely because text messages can help people with disabilities or in situations where talking on the phone isn’t a viable option reach emergency dispatchers, and that hasn’t yet happened. According to the agency, only 16 states support the tool; Iowa, Maine, and Vermont are the only states in which every county supports the tool. This isn’t a victory so much as it’s a consolation prize.
This is a complex shift that was always going to take some time to complete. As former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pointed out in 2012, the current 911 system isn’t perfect, and it was built over the course of decades. Getting the new system set up in just a year and a half was always unlikely — now it’s clear that the agency has struggled do deliver on even a fraction of its promise.
Yet, this is the agency we’re supposed to trust with the Internet. If it can’t create a decent system for text messaging emergency dispatchers, how is it supposed to regulate something that affects essentially every industry, hundreds of millions of people in the United States, and several billion around the world? While you go ponder that, I’ll be sending smoke signals to the fire department to get this cat out of my tree.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]