Emergency help may now be at your fingertips. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently voted 3-2 to adopt a rule requiring all U.S. cell phone carriers and certain app developers to implement services allowing users to send text messages to 911 by the end of 2014. While all major carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, already allow users to text 911, the FCC hopes that requiring all carriers to allow texting to 911 will help users get emergency help when it is too dangerous to speak or when a caller is deaf or has speech difficulties.  It is these situations where the FCC hopes text messaging could save lives.

The effectiveness of the text-to-911 service hinges on the emergency response centers’ ability to receive them. However, these centers have been slow to implement the necessary technology  to receive and respond to user’s text messages. 120 call centers nationwide are now accepting 911 texts across eighteen states, which amounts to only two percent of dispatchers nationwide. The limited amount of call centers accepting texts prompted the two dissenters in the vote to voice concerns of safety should someone rely on texting 911 to unavailable call centers. Currently, if someone texts 911 to a call center that does not receive texts, they will receive a bounce back message from the call center.

The FCC’s new rule may not apply to third-party messaging apps like Google Voice, iMessage and WhatsApp, as they do not send traditional text messages but rout messages across the app’s own systems.  The FCC requires only apps that “interconnect” with text messaging systems to implement feasible texting services to 911. The FCC has expressed its intent to reach out to third-party messaging app developers to make the text-to-911 program universal. However, according to one FCC commissioner, putting 911 location requirements on software developers could lead to consumers’ privacy settings being overridden.

Additionally, critics expressed worry that an eventual shift away from text-messaging technology altogether could undermine the regulation. Should SMS technology be retired, many apps using the SMS technology will not fit the definition that requires these apps to service texts to 911. The impending shift from traditional text messaging to internet-based systems  may cause trouble for this regulation.

Despite the slow implementation and potential drawbacks of the program, the FCC hopes that being able to call for emergency help by texting in an age where most use their cellphones more to text than to talk will prove to be a valuable resource in saving lives.

— Danielle Drago

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One Response to 911: Just a Text Away?

  1. Victoria Roessler says:

    I think this is a great idea, but I worry about how easy it would be to text 911 instead of call. With so many young children using cell phones now this could result in many accidental 911 text messages. In addition, with an accidental text message, the caller would not be able to immediately explain the mistake as they would be able to with a phone call. However, if the benefit of being able to text (rather than just call) 911 outweighs this possible cost, then I believe this is a good idea that will help people of all ages reach 911 in emergency situations.

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