The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken a key step toward making text-to-911 availability standard across the country, although few of the nation’s emergency call centers currently accept text messages.
In August 2014, the commission voted 3-2 to require wireless and some messaging application companies to enable users to send text messages to 911 in an emergency. The companies have until Dec. 31 to comply.
There are an estimated 240 million 911 calls made annually in the United States, about one-third of them from cell phones, although that percentage is significantly higher in some parts of the country, according to the National Emergency Number Association. Additionally, the FCC noted that about 70% of cell phone users send or receive texts, with 1.9 trillion text messages sent in 2013.
“Today, we are taking actions that allow 911 to keep pace with new technology … and, most importantly, that will save lives,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement.
The new rules were adopted two years after the nation’s four largest wireless carriers, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, voluntarily agreed to allow their customers to send text messages to emergency centers. The companies agreed to have text-to-911 capabilities in place by spring 2014. The new rules mean smaller carriers and certain IP-based text applications must also offer the capability.
However, text-to-911 service is not widely available in the United States. The FCC reports that only about 100 emergency call centers serving parts of 16 states as well as all of Maine and Vermont accept emergency texts, although the service areas are expanding.
In a dissenting statement, Commissioner Ajit Pai noted that a tiny percentage of 911 call centers, also known as Public Safety Answering Points, accept texts. He said the new rules would confuse consumers.
“So in your moment of need, if you try texting 911 in over 98% of the country you won’t reach emergency personnel no matter what application you use,” Pai said. “Nothing in today’s order will change that fact anytime soon.”
The FCC requires providers to send their customers a bounce-back message if they try to text 911 in areas where the service currently is not available. The agency also recommends that cell phone users make a voice call to 911 if possible, even if text-to-911 is available.