A vast majority of Americans use text messaging, but most Americans cannot reach 911 by text during an emergency.
The Federal Communications Commission wants to change that.
The five commissioners of the FCC voted unanimously Thursday to move forward a proposal that would make it mandatory for cellular carriers to make text-to-911 capabilities available by the end of the year. The four major carriers–AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—volunteered in 2012 to make text-to-911 available by May.
Text-to-911 could be a lifesaver for people with speech and hearing disabilities, and in domestic-abuse or home-intrusion situations. Chairman Tom Wheeler said one deaf man told him, “This idea allows me to take control of my life.”
According to to a recent survey by Pew, 91 percent of Americans have a cell phone and 81 percent of those use it to send and receive text messages. Young Americans use their phones far more often to text than to make voice calls.
But enabling text-to-911 capabilities on cell phones is only half the battle. 911 call-centers also have to update technology to receive messages. Text-to-911 is currently only available in select areas around the country. The FCC does not have the authority to make 911 call centers, or public-safety answering points, accept text messages.
“The FCC has done its part,” said Wheeler. “Now its time for the [911 call-centers] to do their part.” Even in places where text-to-911 is available, voice calls to 911 would remain the preferred method of reaching 911 because location tracking is more accurate.