A man hiding from a burglar silently sends a text message about his emergency. A motorist quickly uploads a video of a serious car crash. A passerby's snapshot of an armed robber is quickly delivered to police on patrol.
As wireless devices increasingly allow citizens to quickly capture and transmit information, Maryland officials are installing technology that could pave the way to make any of these scenarios possible.
As part of a nationwide effort, the state is upgrading emergency communications to prepare dispatch centers for what's called Next Generation 911. The effort has funneled more than $50 million into system upgrades statewide, creating the backbone for systems that could be enhanced to accept text messages, images, video and audio.
"What we receive now is a phone call and a location," said Gordon Deans, executive director of the Emergency Number Systems Board, the state office overseeing the program.
"We have alarm companies that may want to send us a video they may be viewing of a break-in. It could be a video from a camera that has been installed for security."
The 911 upgrades are installing the basics for what officials say will be a secure pipeline to transmit and accept more data.
The change, generally, has 911 systems transmitting information using Voice Over Internet Protocol instead of through traditional phone systems, a change Deans likened to a homeowner switching to FIOS or cable for telephone service. In the long run, he said it will be less costly than the older systems.
Deans said the potential uses for the new system fall into two broad groups: accepting data — text messages are expected to be tested in Maryland next year — and accessing or transferring data.
The idea is that down the road, emergency workers could use such capabilities to view building plan details, locate nearby hazardous-materials sites and see victims' medical records. The ability to do those things is not part of the upgrades, but could come later as the hardware and programs are developed.
A fully developed system could prove costly for financially strapped governments to operate, some say, and there are some questions about how useful it would turn out to be.
"On its face, it sounds great," said Vernon Herron, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
But, he predicted, text messages will lead to delays because gathering information by texted conversations takes longer than by voice. "Response times are going to increase. And time is of the essence," Herron said.
"They'll have to increase staffing by 20 percent. They are going to have to hire staff just for video, texting and data," Herron said.
As Vermont tested a text messaging system, David Tucker, executive director of that state's Enhanced 911 Board said the ability to accept text messages helped people who had been unable to call 911.
"In one situation, we were able to get a medical responder to a person's house and they saved the person's life," he said. In the other, "we were able to intervene in a domestic situation. … That person was able to contact us without making a voice call and being heard by the other party."
Baltimore is getting a $700,000 upgrade to 911 in coming months, and that includes real-time mapping of calls, city officials said.
Police say that receiving more information quickly can be helpful in almost every situation. Former State Police Superintendent David Mitchell, now the police chief for the University of Maryland College Park, said more information can help officers make difficult decisions — including on the use of deadly force.
"There are two major decisions to make: Do I have good cover ... [and] how much information I have about the threat?" he said. "So as we are rolling on calls, the more information we have, the better."
The campus is currently testing a smartphone app that allows a dispatcher to access a caller's camera and transfer images to a police car computer.
Construction is about to begin on the Eastern Shore for the first part of a $7.1 million system that will give the Maryland State Police the framework for Next Generation 911 statewide The system will allow caller information to be transferred along with the voice calls from local 911 centers to state police and clear the way for future testing of Next Generation capabilities.
Timothy Lorello, senior vice president of Annapolis-based TeleCommunication System Inc., which is working with Verizon Wireless on the texting tests in Maryland and elsewhere, said not only is the public increasingly mobile, but the younger population is accustomed to having a multimedia world at its fingertips, sending out texts, tweets, photos and videos of crises as they occur.
Texts are expected to be rare — 911 calls are faster and can also communicate background sounds as well as how agitated a caller is, experts say.
In Durham, N.C., which has been testing texting there's been very little use of the new feature — a single report came in about an alarm sounding at a construction site. It turned out to be weather-related.
"That's one of the myths that's out there, that implementing this would overwhelm 911 centers. We've had one text in a year," said James Soukup, director of the emergency communications center for Durham city and county.