All Americans will soon be able to to send text messages to their local 911 emergency services department. That's because on Friday, July 8th, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to introduce new rules requiring all cellular service providers nationwide to support texts to 911 by December 31, 2014.
The text-to-911 service is currently only available in some areas of the country and on only major national wireless carriers.
Statement from FCC Chairman on new text-to-911 rule
"Our first responsibility is to provide for the safety of Americans," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler after the vote, "and this is a step to continue to fulfill that responsibility. And it is not a final step."
The most recent FCC data show that more than 400,000 Americans contact 911 every day, and nearly 70% of those calls come from cellphones. Emergency service department across the country respond to 911 calls hundreds of thousands of times a day, and they point out that in places where it's too dangerous for a caller to speak out loud, or where the caller simply can't talk, the a reliable text-to-911 service could save lives.
Text-to-911, however, does present some unique challenges. Unlike calls from a cellphone, where getting accurate location data is a difficult but technically doable, user's for now at least will have to provide their location by text message. This creates the problem that 911 dispatchers may not know where to send help in response to a text to 911 like they can with a cell phone call. Experts say this technical hurdle may be overcome, but not likely in the immediate future.
Reason for dissenting vote
Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai explained his "no" vote on the rule change by saying the new FCC rule made people "dive in… when in fact there's hardly any water in the pool," pointing out that even if wireless carriers complied with the regulations on time, only a little more than 2% of 911 dispatchers currently have the ability to accept text messages.