FCC's 911 mobile upgrade equally important for hospitals, first responders

Hospitals should get involved in a small rulemaking announced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late last week.

On the surface it seems unrelated to healthcare--regulators are trying to upgrade the legacy 911 system to accept advanced communications like text messages, photos and videos.

The initiative, called Next Generation 911, or NG-911, is aimed at governmental first responders like police and fire departments. But it could be just as important for hospital ERs and emergency response units, according to Russell Fox, FCC attorney with Mintz-Levin, Washington, D.C.

Here's why: If police and/or firefighters receive photos or videos from a 911 caller, that data could be important in providing appropriate care on scene, or later in the hospital. On the scene of an auto accident, for example, a video of the aftermath could inform EMTs about the number of injured, the possible extent of the injuries, and how they can safely approach the vehicle.

Consider a photo of a fire scene that shows multiple buildings involved and dozens of injured on the sidewalk nearby. That photo could help an ER physician mobilize a disaster response team, or call in additional physicians to handle the patients when they arrive at the hospital. Too often now, ER staff are only aware of the scope of a disaster when the patients come through their doors.

Hospital execs will have a chance to insert themselves into the discussion about NG-911, and how it might expand to include healthcare providers, next month. The FCC says it will propose a new regulation for the NG-911 program, and welcomes public comment.

Fox recommends healthcare providers alert regulators to the role they play in first response to a crisis, and how any additional information obtained by 911 operators should be passed along directly to healthcare personnel.

"This will be the right vehicle for hospitals to be heard," he adds.

FCC regulators say they want the NG-911 system to provide "enhanced information for first responders: PSAPs [Public safety answering points] receiving text, data, photos, and videos can assess emergencies more quickly and respond more effectively." It shouldn't be a major stretch convince regulators that the new capabilities should be extended to ambulance companies, ER departments, EMTs and other rescue personnel as well. - Sara