Emergency services will soon be just a few button taps away with plans to develop a new text-to-911 feature, the FCC reported Thursday.
Four major U.S. mobile carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – have signed on to support the service, with developments anticipated as soon as 2013. Nationwide availability to more than 90 percent of wireless consumers is expected by May 2014.
The service, which will complement traditional emergency voice calls, will “provide consumers with enhanced access to emergency communications in situations where a voice call could endanger the caller, or a person with disabilities is unable to make a voice call,” according to a press release issued Thursday.
By mid-2013, during the transitional phase, consumers will receive “bounce back” texts if the service is unsupported by their local call centre. These consumers are encouraged to call 911.
According to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, this is the first service of the proposed “next-generation 911” (NG911) plan. In the future, photo and video transmissions and pinging by third-party automated systems may also be implemented.
“Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century,” Genachowski said during Thursday's press conference. “Today, we are one step closer towards that vital goal.”
The NG911 will be the first major overhaul to the system since 2001, when mobile carriers granted permission to emergency services to trace mobile phones via GPS or cell-tower data.
The FCC and Genachowski first suggested texting-to-911 services in late 2010.
Texting for services played a role during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled an SMS request line to respond to clean-up efforts. In Canada, texting for emergency services (known as T-911) is available for the speech- and hearing-impaired after a rigorous three-month trial period in four cities. In the U.S., however, only a handful of call centres receive emergency texts.
The announcement comes just days after the text message's 20-year anniversary.
Genachowski says research for NG911 will continue in 2013.