911 has been very slow to respond to improvements in technology, sometimes to the detriment of its service. Smartphones, carried everywhere by millions of Americans, have sophisticated tracking, communication, and multimedia capabilities which lie largely untapped by 911. Today, the FCC announced plans to update 911 to allow for texting, as well as other tools like streaming video and MMS.

The plan, called Next Gen 911, would be the first national update to the 911 service since 2001. That update was also focused on modernity; it required cellular carriers to stamp an emergency caller’s GPS location on the call. But so much more could be done.

The events at Virginia Tech in 2007 also served as an impetus for the change. During those shootings, many students attempted to text 911, rather than calling and possibly giving away their locations to the shooter. But with no system set up to retrieve the texts, they simply vanished. Imagine if not only those texts could have gotten through, but also a live streaming video. The smartphone could be an incredible tool in this kind of situation.

Even more, the proposal outlines a plan to incorporate various communicating sensors into smoke detectors and other alarm systems, so 911 services could be alerted to any problems more quickly.

It’s not clear how much of the proposal will actually make it into the bill, or even how much funding (or from where) the FCC will be able to secure to make these improvements.

[Next Gen 911 via Wired]