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911, can I have access to the camera on your phone?

Examining the potential for social media platforms and live video feeds to revolutionize the way emergency calls are handled, providing dispatchers with unprecedented situational awareness

Police dispatch, communication headset and man talking, speaking and consulting with security, monitor CCTV or callcenter. Conversation, support consultation and back of person chat about 911 service

Police dispatch, communication headset and man talking, speaking and consulting with security, monitor CCTV or callcenter. Conversation, support consultation and back of person chat about 911 service

Jacob Wackerhausen/Getty Images

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it — creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By Lieutenant David Kim

The 911 system has been around since the late 1960s, before which callers relied on operators to reach emergency personnel. As time passed, emergency dispatch grew into its own specialty. By 1982 CAD (computer-aided dispatch) systems were helping dispatchers track and keep records of calls.

In 1983 the first mobile phone became publicly available, and by early 1992 IBM engineer Frank Canova created the first prototype smartphone. [1] IBM thus became the first company to introduce a phone that could send and receive emails and other communications. In 2007 Apple announced the first iPhone, moving away from keyboards to the now-ubiquitous on-screen applications. [2] As technology further advanced, GPS vehicle tracking and text 911 were introduced for mobile users. Text 911 was first accepted from a county jail call center in Waterloo, Iowa [3] and now serves callers who are deaf, hard of hearing or in an emergency but can’t reach 911 by calling. Shortly thereafter Live911 debuted, allowing officers in the field to hear 911 calls in their vehicles, and it is now being used by the Chula Vista Police Department in California and a growing list of other law enforcement agencies. [4]

So, what can we expect for the emergency dispatch system’s continued development? Its next evolution will be the ability to connect via FaceTime and similar social media live video feeds. Callers will soon be able to inform dispatch centers by giving dispatchers access to their cell phones, thus letting them see emergencies in real time.

How will real-time video change the ways calls to the police are received and dispatched? Will callers consent to that use, or will it be yet another good idea that never reaches its potential?

Text 911 and Live911

Text 911 was created for callers who are deaf, hard of hearing or can’t call 911 in an emergency. In California, the Montebello Police Department went live with text 911 in 2021 and has had many successful uses. In one case, a dispatcher told of a domestic violence incident where the victim used text 911 to contact the police. The victim texted that she’d locked herself in a bathroom to hide from her assailant. The dispatcher responded via text to obtain pertinent information for responding officers. Using that information, officers quickly detained the suspect, ultimately saving the victim from further abuse. Texting the police is becoming the norm even as other advances take hold.

The Chula Vista Police Department was the first police agency in the country to implement the Live911 program. Live911 allows police officers to hear 911 calls in their police vehicles simultaneously as dispatchers receive them – and actually hear emergencies in real time. They can also see the exact locations of callers. [5] This allows the officers to ask additional questions. Officers hearing emergencies in real time saves about 45 to 60 seconds each the system is used. This could be important to saving someone’s life.

Live911 has been a game-changer for Chula Vista. The question remains, though, how can this technology be improved? Can adding a video component to Live911 or social media livestreaming be another game-changer?

Social media

Social media has become one of our largest communications platforms; some argue it is the best form of communication since the birth of letters, telephones and cell phones. [6] Social media is also global; people can communicate with anyone in the world with the touch of a finger.

By 2023, there were approximately 240 million people in the United States and 4.9 billion globally using some type of interactive social media. [7,8] That is approximately 72.5% of the U.S. population and 60.6% globally. With so many people using Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, there need to be different and better ways of communicating with emergency dispatch centers during emergencies. Using social media could allow callers to convey voice, data and visuals in real-time, identifying landmarks and pinpointing exact locations. Not only will this help dispatchers understand what’s happening, but it will aid them in responding safely and knowing what to do upon arriving on scene.

Among the many social media platforms, the most popular are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, X (formerly known as Twitter), Pinterest, Reddit, LinkedIn and Threads. [9] Most share one common feature: the ability to go live. Utilizing the power of cell phone cameras, people can share their experiences by feeding live videos to viewers. People from all over the world can view what’s captured during a live video feed. By utilizing these live feeds, the police can enhance how they help the public in a number of ways.

Livestreaming technology

The Ravenna police department in Ohio was the first police department to pilot livestreaming cell phone calls. [10] When a Ravenna dispatcher receives a 911 call, they have the option to ask the caller for access to their cell phone camera. The dispatcher will send the caller a link they can click to allow this. [11] A dispatcher from the city shared how effective this system is, telling of a knife-wielding subject who had barricaded himself and his girlfriend inside his house. The girlfriend was able to call 911 and give dispatchers live video of what was happening. The dispatcher gave live updates to the officers on scene as well as a description of the subject, allowing them to enter safely and rescue the victim. [12]

Officers on patrol rely on descriptions given by dispatchers. These descriptions can be vague, even when they capture race, gender, age, height, weight and clothing. If a suspect of a specific race is in a community consisting of people with predominantly the same racial makeup, it may be difficult for officers to locate that suspect. However, if dispatchers have a video or live feed of the suspects(s), the police know exactly who they are looking for. As a result, perpetrators can more easily be identified, dramatically reducing the chances of detaining or using force against the wrong person.

GPS tracking on caller’s cell phone

Beyond officer and community safety, though, the smartphone itself can be a crime-fighting tool.

One of the most important features of cell phones is GPS tracking. GPS tracking can pinpoint the cell phone’s exact location. Cell phone owners often use this feature to locate their lost cell phones. Ironically, dispatchers use this feature to locate callers. Applications like “Find my iPhone” for Apple users and “Find my phone” for Android users utilize GPS tracking to provide accurate location information. Social media platforms also incorporate GPS location functions, allowing users to share their locations. This function can typically be manually turned on or off. If you have the GPS function on, your location can be tracked. [13] With the GPS location function, dispatchers can pinpoint the exact locations of callers, which can be crucial for everyone’s safety.

Increase in staffing for dispatchers

It isn’t a matter of just subscribing to a cell service or installing video feeds; adding video or social media 911 components to the emergency dispatch center will require additional personnel. The dispatch center generally consists of a dispatcher who receives calls for service and another to dispatch officers. The job would be too hectic for two dispatchers to handle video or social media 911 calls as well.

In a perfect world, dispatch centers would have four to five dispatchers per shift so they can be relieved to take meals or mental breaks. Obviously, this may not always be feasible. The Montebello Police Department currently operates with a total of eight dispatchers, although the desired number is 10. This isn’t just an issue in Montebello; shortages of qualified dispatchers to staff emergency communications centers are seen throughout California. A necessary first step to implement this or any other technology is to staff people to operate it. In this instance, that includes retaining the emergency communications dispatchers we have.

One impediment, though, is the stress of the job and managing the wellness of those performing its duties. While the introduction of social media 911 live video feeds adds an innovative technology to emergency response, it also brings new challenges, particularly in terms of wellness. Dispatchers are trained to maintain their composure and professionalism during distressing phone calls. Exposure to real-time graphic and traumatic scenes through live video may have a detrimental effect on their well-being.

To address these challenges, wellness and peer support programs are imperative. These can provide dispatchers the tools to overcome and cope with the stresses of seeing the emergency.

Privacy concerns

“With public access into private security systems,” noted journalist Sascha Brodsky, “this inherently runs the risk of bringing local government authority into your home sphere.” [14] The author was referring to Ring door camera; however, it can also be said about smartphones. If emergency dispatch can gain access to your smartphone camera, what other information on your device might it get? People can be mistrustful about their privacy and may feel skeptical about allowing police dispatchers to access their smartphones.

There are many reasons why privacy with your smartphone may be compromised and how the camera can be a security risk. [15] Much as a smartphone user can use the camera on their phone to capture an image or video, a hacker can do the same by using the camera on your smartphone to spy on your activity. This can also be done with microphones; hackers can listen to your conversations. [15] With privacy concerns, you inherently run the risk of being compromised regardless of whether you grant or refuse permission to access your smartphone camera; therefore, any police agency contemplating the use of live video must also incorporate appropriate privacy safeguards.

Other aspects to consider

There are several other areas to consider prior to going live with any live social media 911 video feed. In-depth policies and guidelines must be established. Video storage will take up a tremendous amount of space; therefore, cloud-based storage will be needed. Funds may be needed to add capacity. There will be a need for additional personnel in the evidence bureau to handle storage and prepare videos for court. Public awareness needs to be addressed — both advantages and privacy issues.


As communication through apps and social media platforms continues to grow in the future, law enforcement agencies will have no choice but to cater to such users in all aspects of police services. But the question remains: Will the public using FaceTime/social media 911 allow dispatchers access to their cell phone cameras? And if and when they do, will we be ready?

Questions to consider

  1. How do we balance the need for privacy with the potential for increased efficiency and accuracy in emergency response that real-time video access provides? Consider the implications for both the caller’s and the responder’s perspectives.
  2. In situations where dispatchers request access to a caller’s phone camera, what measures should be in place to ensure consent is informed and voluntary? Discuss scenarios where consent might be complicated or impossible to obtain.
  3. How might exposure to live video feeds of emergencies affect the mental health and well-being of dispatchers? What support systems or protocols should be established to help manage the potential increase in stress or trauma?
  4. What are some of the main technological challenges (e.g., bandwidth limitations, video quality, accessibility) that could hinder the implementation of live video in 911 calls? Brainstorm potential solutions or alternatives that could address these challenges.
  5. Beyond the immediate impact on emergency response, what are the broader ethical considerations and societal impacts of integrating live video and social media platforms into 911 services? Discuss the potential for misuse, surveillance concerns, and the effect on public trust in emergency services.


1. Paavola A. Smartphone history: A complete timeline. Textline. December 2022.

2. Tocci M. Smartphone history and evolution. SimpleTexting. January 2023.

3. Svensson P. Iowa 911 center is first to accept text messages. NBC News. August 2009.

4. Little J. Pilot program lets CVPD officers listen to live 911 calls. NBC San Diego. February 2020.

5. Chula Vista Police Department. CVPD rolls out Live911. Nextdoor. July 2020.

6. How has social media emerged as a powerful communication medium? University Canada West.

7. Kemp S. Digital 2023: The United States of America. DataReportal. February 2023.

8. Global social media statistics. DataReportal. January 2024.

9. Walsh S. The top 10 social media sites & platforms. Search Engine Journal. November 2023.

10. LePard C. Ravenna police enables 911 callers to livestream video, upload pictures to dispatchers. News 5 Cleveland. June 2023.

11. Saunders J. New software allows 911 callers to livestream video to Ravenna police and fire dispatchers. Record-Courier. June 2023.

12. Terry. Personal communication. December 20, 2023.

13. Amerudin S. How social media platforms gather and use location information. People @UTM. December 2014.

14. Brodsky S. Now you can video call 911. Lifewire. November 2020.

15. DeMuro JP, Drake N. 8 reasons why smartphones are privacy nightmare. TechRadar. September 2023.

About the author

Lt. David Kim has dedicated approximately 27 years to serving as a police officer with the Montebello (California) Police Department. Currently, he holds the position of Detective Lieutenant, managing a team of 10 personnel. He is a graduate of POST Command College Class 71. Lt. Kim earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Cal State Long Beach and is a graduate of the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute, Class 331. He is also pursuing a master’s degree at the University of San Diego.