A 911 system in Iowa signals big changes

Aug 17, 2009 10:14am

By Michael Kaiser, NCSA Executive Director

We usually measure how far the digital world has come into our lives through big statistics, such as the number of users on social network sites or the amount of commerce conducted over the Internet. Sometimes there are better measures.

Recently, Waterloo Iowa became the first Police Department in the country to accept text messages into its 911 system according to an article in USA Today. The adoption of texting by a 911 system is as good an indicator as any of the movement to a digital culture.

Law enforcement agencies play a critical role in protecting citizens in every community in America. The communications systems police departments run are a critical part of the safety infrastructure. Accepting text messages is a huge change as it recognizes the expanding ways we communicate and adopt new communications technologies. In the article, Thomas Jennings, the Police Chief of Black Hawk County, said, “911 texting should be of particular help to the county's deaf and hard-of-hearing residents, who have had to rely on more cumbersome methods to reach 911.” That’s certainly true and there are other circumstances where texting could be beneficial, such as a home invasion where the perpetrator does not know someone is in the home and the victim can text 911 quietly. Texting 911 may also make it easier for young people as well many of whom are more comfortable texting then calling.

There is a larger significance here though. POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) is the basis of most 911 systems today and has been for a century (yes, cell phones have GPS that aide 911 calls but that’s more of a minor modification then a significant shift). As we change the way we communicate our larger community supports will have to change as well these are signifcant adjustments requiring new investments of resources. Could there be a day when we report crime through social networks? We will we friend our local patrol officer? What diverse means of communication should be put in place so all citizens get important safety messages?

While the kinds of changes Waterloo are putting in place, are certainly welcome. We should always move forward with caution. When I worked at the National Center for Victims of Crime, I participated in a report titled Beyond the Beat: Ethical Considerations for Community Policing in the Digital Age  that explored the use of technology in policing and the opportunities and challenges for law enforcement agencies as they adopt Internet based communications. If you review the report, you will see that implementation of new technologies for policing is a complicated equation of balancing the public’s right to know and privacy as well being extremely cautious about unintended consequences.

There is no doubt that as we move forward police and other governmental entities will adopt and adapt to the changing technologies and take advantage of the many ways that technology can enhance government and interactions with citizens. However, before we go full steam ahead we should be sure to think through all safety and security concerns. We need to know that communications are secure and private. For example, text messages if not erased could be used against a victim later, such as in the cases of domestic violence. If the 911 system is connected to the Internet we need to be assured that the networks are secure from outsiders who might want to mine the rich data about people and the community.

SSO (stay safe online),