The "Big 4" wireless carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – have voluntarily agreed to work together to enable texting to emergency 911 centers across the United States. Text-to-911 service capabilities would be deployed throughout the carriers' wireless networks by May 15, 2014.
NENA -- a professional organization solely focused on 911 policy, technology, operations, and education -- the four major carriers and the Association for Public-Safety Communications Officials International (APCO) are parties to the agreement announced Dec. 6.
Text-to-911 capabilities are especially sought by people in the hearing and speech disabilities communities, according to NENA.
"As the public becomes more mobile and embraces new methods for communicating, 911 has to be ready to answer non-voice requests for assistance," said NENA President Barbara Jaeger in a press release. "This historic agreement demonstrates the shared commitment of parties to serve the evolving needs of citizens in the digital age."
The agreement was submitted to the Federal Communications Commission, which is scheduled to discuss the issue and consider further action at a meeting on Dec. 12.
NENA emphasized that the agreement does not mean that text-to-911 service will be available to all consumers by 2014; that will hinge on the deployment of hardware, software and training at the more than 6,000 911 centers across America.
Under the agreement, the parties will work together and with stakeholders from industry, government, public safety and consumer groups to develop the technical standards and operational procedures needed to ensure a seamless introduction of texting into U.S. 911 centers.
Before the deployment of Text-to-911, the signatory service providers agreed to implement a bounce-back (auto-reply) message to alert subscribers attempting to text an emergency message to instead dial 911 when Text-to-911 is unavailable in that area. The service providers will implement the auto-reply message capability by June 30, 2013.
Progress reports will be submitted quarterly by the carriers to NENA and APCO.
The service providers said they would meet their commitments under the agreement independent of their ability to recover associated costs from state or local governments.
The agreement also includes a commitment by all parties to educate the public about how and when they can send texts to 911.
"It is critically important that the public be reminded that the best way to reach 911 is still via voice communications," added Jaeger in the news release. Text-to-911 is not intended to be a substitute for voice calls to 911.