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US text-to-911 emergency SMS to go live by 2014

Top four carriers to start rollout next year

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"Omg hlp nd a dr" may soon become a familiar phrase to emergency operators in the US, thanks to a plan to enable text messaging to the 911 emergency telephone number from anywhere in the country by 2014.

On Thursday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Julius Genachowski announced that the four major US mobile carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon – have all agreed to begin major deployments of text-to-911 technology in 2013, and to make the service universal by May 15, 2014.

This all may seem old hat to readers across the pond – British telecom regulator Ofcom made emergency SMS service mandatory in 2011 – but here in the US and Canada, good old-fashioned voice dialing remains the only way to contact authorities in a crisis.

A number of government organizations have been working to change that, however, with the Department of Transportation leading the so-called Next Generation 911 (NG911) effort since 2006.

In 2011, the FCC announced a five-step action plan aimed at accelerating nationwide deployment of an NG911 system based on "seamless, end-to-end IP-based communication of emergency-related voice, text, data, photos, and video." Obviously, enabling text-to-911 is but one step in this process.

What's more, text-to-911 isn't meant to replace traditional voice dialing to emergency response centers for most users. According to the FCC, people in emergency situations should always place voice calls to 911 if they can.

The system could be a literal lifesaver for people in situations where speaking aloud could put them in danger, though, or for those with hearing or speech disabilities that make it difficult for them to make voice calls.

Because text-to-911 service will be rolled out in stages, the FCC says the carriers have also committed to implementing a "bounce back" service, which will notify users with an automated SMS message if text-to-911 is not yet available in their area. (Expect some clever hack to work this device into a horror-movie screenplay next year.)

Genachowski said that in the coming week the FCC will also consider steps to accelerate the adoption of text-to-911 by "over-the-top" providers, such as 2go and WhatsApp, which provide mobile text-messaging services that ride on IP data traffic.

"We will also take additional steps in this area next year," Genachowski said, "including closely monitoring carriers' compliance with the commitments they have made today and addressing other aspects of Next Generation 911 such as enabling transmission of photos and videos to 9-1-1 centers."

Those last two capabilities will surely be welcomed by 911 operators, as the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" is likely never truer than during an emergency. On the other hand, once text-to-911 goes live, operators may occasionally have to make do with 140 characters or fewer. ®

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