FCC pushes for 911 emergency texts

Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission wants people in an emergency to be able to send a text message to 911 instead of having to call.

The FCC on Friday voted 3-2 to require wireless companies and some messaging applications to allow people to send texts to the emergency response service by the end of the year.

ADVERTISEMENT
Despite the new rules, the vast majority of the country’s emergency centers won’t be technologically ready to receive the messages. But the FCC’s move should help encourage more places to accept texted emergency messages, Democratic commissioners hoped, and they hailed it as a significant advancement for public safety and services for the deaf.

“This is about people’s lives,” Chairman Tom Wheeler said in fiery remarks defending the order. “This is about the expectation that our first responsibility is to provide for the safety of Americans. This is a step to continue to fulfill that responsibility and it is not the final step.”

Subscribers on the nation’s four major wireless companies — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — have all been able to send texts to emergency centers under a voluntary agreement the companies made in 2012. The new order would be a legal backstop to that agreement and would require smaller companies to provide the texts.

Additionally, it would extend the mandate to messaging apps like Apple’s iMessage that are sent over wireless networks.

“Times change, technology marches on, and we find new ways to bring the ways we communicate into the 911 fold,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said in arguing for the update. “Many of us use our phones more for texting than for speaking.”

Still, most people won't be able to send texts to 911 for a while.

Only 2 percent of emergency responders can currently receive text messages, and only in a handful of states. While some apps will be able to text to 911, popular services like WhatsApp that do not rely on the text messages’ SMS technology will not.

That caused Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, to vote against the rule. 

By misleading people into believing that they can text to 911 from anywhere in the country, he said, the rule “will endanger rather than advance public safety.”

“In your moment of need, if you try texting 911 in over 98 percent of the country you won’t reach emergency personnel no matter what application you use,” he said. “Nothing in this order will change that fact any time soon.”

It could also divert resources from deploying new, upgraded 911 infrastructure, he warned.

In addition to ordering wireless companies and some apps to allow texts to 911, the FCC also proposed to expand the order to additional services such as WhatsApp and also include location information in those texts.