July 1, 2013 - 3:49 pm

For the millions of Americans who use text messaging on their wireless phones, it may come as a surprise that you typically can’t reach 911 by text message. That is beginning to change, however.

Text-to-911 service is currently available on a limited basis in a few locations across the country. Itcan provide a lifesaving alternative in many situations – where a person with a hearing or speech disability is unable to make a voice call, where voice networks are congested, or where a 911 voice call could endanger the caller. In fact, it has already saved lives and thwarted crimes, including preventing a suicide in Vermont and, in Iowa, protecting women and children from abuse who were silently able to text for help.  

To build on that progress, the four largest U.S. wireless companies – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon – have voluntarily committed to make text-to-911 available by May 15, 2014, in all areas served by their networks where the local 911 call center has the technical capability to receive texts.  

In addition, the FCC has sought comment on proposed rules to require all wireless carriers and “interconnected” text message providers to likewise make text-to-911 available where the 911 call center has the technical capability to receive texts. 

As text-to-911 becomes more widely available, there is also an increased need for consumer education. For example, even where text-to-911 is possible, you should only text 911 when a voice call is not an option. Educating consumers is a large part of why the FCC has developed a consumer guide on text-to-911, which we will update going forward. We’ll keep you informed on the progress of text-to-911 toward becoming a powerful tool for public safety.