Hope springs eternal: FCC says in 18 months you can text 9-1-1

Updated: Finally! The FCC has announced a voluntary two-year plan to allow users on the nation’s four largest carriers to text 9-1-1, and actually be assured of getting the help they need. The FCC expects the plan to go into effect in most areas next year with the 90 percent of the nation’s wireless subscribers receiving coverage by May 15, 2014.

This plan is part of the FCC’s overall attempt to adapt the rules and regulations of the landline era to the current mobile and IP world and is specifically part of the agency’s Next Generation 911 (NG911) services. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski had called for this ability about two years ago, so it’s good to see momentum building.

When it comes to 9-1-1 calls on mobile phones, there are many examples of problems, even when dealing with voice. Carriers have had the ability to locate citizens in a general area using cell-phone tower triangulation for a long while, and with the rise of GPS on devices, that ability to find a user’s location has only grown more exact. So while pinpointing location has become less of an issue for people who make voice calls into 9-1-1, a big sticking point on texts has been that the call centers receiving 9-1-1 calls haven’t been set up to receive those messages. The FCC will work with all parties, including services that provide over-the-top texting options, such as Pinger or WhatsApp to ensure that consumers can reach 9-1-1 via text message.

As for implementation, during the transitional phase if someone texts 9-1-1 the carriers have committed to sending a bounce back text if the text did not go through. I can imagine in certain emergency situations where a call isn’t possible, getting a failed bounce back text that causes your phone to beep might also be dangerous. The four carriers will fully implement this “bounce back” capability across their networks by June 30, 2013.

The FCC also wants to remind people that texting 9-1-1 is complement, not a replacement for calling 9-1-1, and consumers should do that if possible even after they send a text. It’s possible that they may even be able to do more if the FCC’s more ambitious plans come to pass. The agency is looking at using cell phones and texts as a resource to share information about emergency situations with public safety officials. From the release:

“We will also take additional steps in this area next year, 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. We are also working to strengthen the resiliency and reliability of the existing 911 system, where significant deficiencies were revealed by this summer’s Derecho.”

More information is always a good thing in times of crisis, and taking advantage of smartphones, rather than just bringing them up to the standard of landlines is a good move.

Update: A previous version of this story said the FCC set this voluntary plan, but the plan was agreed upon by the four carriers, NENA-The 9-1-1 Association and APCO, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. The FCC will review that plan.