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Nation’s 911 System Inching Towards Greater Accessibility

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nation’s 911 System Inching Towards Greater Accessibility

Wireless providers will soon be required to make text-to-911 available on their networks, though not all emergency call centers are equipped to receive such messages. (Thinkstock)

A new federal rule is paving the way for 911 services to become more accessible for people with disabilities.

The Federal Communications Commission will require all wireless carriers and certain other applications that allow users to send text messages to facilitate text-to-911 services by the end of the year under a rule adopted earlier this month.

The offering is considered to be of particular benefit for those who are nonverbal or have hearing disabilities as well as people with speech and other communication difficulties.

Already the nation’s four main wireless providers – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — have implemented the technology on their networks ahead of any mandate. The FCC effort, however, will ensure that smaller carriers put the infrastructure in place to allow customers to text 911 in an emergency.

Nonetheless, even with the new FCC rule, the service is unlikely to be available nationwide in the near future. That’s because emergency call centers also must have technology to receive and respond to the messages.

In May, Vermont became the first to accept text-to-911 messages statewide with Maine quickly following. Additionally, communities in 16 other states are currently offering the service, according to the FCC.

“We know that text-to-911, where it is available, is a lifesaver,” said Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC. “While the FCC and certain parts of the industry are stepping up to meet their responsibilities, we need more state and local governments to step up.”

Even in cases where text-to-911 is available, officials say it is still preferable to call when possible.