FCC chairman discusses new ways Hoosiers could contact 911

Federal Communication Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai speaks Feb. 26, 2015, during an open hearing and vote on "Net Neutrality" in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai visited Noblesville on Tuesday for a roundtable discussion how Indiana has enhanced and could still enhance more methods of communication with its 911 dispatchers.

Pai told the group of Hamilton County emergency responders that he was impressed with the state’s Text 911 program, the first in a state of our size. Text 911 is available in all 92 Indiana counties.

“The FCC is always looking for ways to make sure your 911 system is robust, no matter what the emergency is: hurricane, tornado, earthquake, terrorist attack,” Pai said. “We want to make sure that when people are in a moment of need they can reach emergency responders.”

However, the discussion quickly turned to what’s next for Next Generation 911, or NG911, in the state.

“The next piece is really the ability to send video and photographs into a dispatch center,” said Michael Snowden, executive director of Hamilton County Public Safety Communications. “That’s coming in the state of Indiana we expect in the next year or so, and again we’ll be at the forefront because that’s not something that’s being done throughout the United States.”

“They can send a picture of a plate of a suspect vehicle who may be leaving the scene of the accident but they’re able to snap a photograph as they person drives off,” Snowden said. “Today, an officer literally could be driving to a scene of a crime or an accident and drive right past the suspect because we don’t have that information. And so having that information send to us would be incredibly helpful.”

Officials expect that dispatchers have more to handle than just calls, texts and potentially video, as more and more young adults are using social media to contact emergency authorities even using tags like #NeedHelp. Pai said he’s seen this kind of innovative 911 technology used firsthand in the hurricane-hit regions in Florida and Texas.

“We heard a story about a 14-year-old girl who was rescued by the Coast Guard. She got on her iPhone and asked Siri, ‘Siri, call the Coast Guard,'” Pai said. “Luckily in that case she was saved but in an emergency like that it’s really difficult for public safety officials to keep track of all the different ways people are asking for help.”

Chief Steve Orusa of the Fishers Fire Department agreed. He said he has had to add staff to handle the social media emergency monitoring.

“With Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all those social media platforms, that’s that much more information that we have to manage coming in,” he said. “So what we’ve done is develop an intelligence section that’s staffed with more than one person. We’ve even thought about calling in the [high school’s] National Honor Society because obviously some of us are not as digitally competent as they are.”

Officials are also looking further into the future, past social media and human-generated emergency calls.

“It’s not far in our future that a refrigerator could call 911 because it’s flooding a house,” Snowden said, “or running shoes could call 911 because the person within those shoes is having a heart issue.”

U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, helped lead the discussion in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Offices on Tuesday. She said the changes will take time and there are several funding options to help enable a smooth transition, including grants, federal funding and reallocating the $1 911 charge on phone bills. The shift in workload for Indiana dispatchers could take some time as well.

“My staff weren’t hired or trained to look at crime scene photos,” Snowden said. “So what is that going to look like for them, and how it that going to touch the mental health of our dispatchers?”