FCC warns that it's still better to call 911 instead of texting

Agency lists just 59 of 6,000 emergency call centers that can take text-to-911 after May 15 deadline passes

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to warn the public not to rely on text messages to reach 911 in emergencies because the technology is only available to 59 of the more than 6,000 emergency communications centers nationwide.

On its official website, the FCC notes that "the ability to contact 911 using text is only available on a limited basis in a few markets. For this reason, you should not rely on text to reach 911."

The agency instead urges calling 911 in an emergency, "even where text-to-911 is available."

In recent years, the FCC has urged public safety officials and wireless carriers to implement text-to-911 to help serve deaf and speech-disabled people who might not be able to call 911. Also, during some major hurricanes and catastrophes, voice calls to 911 have failed while smartphone users were still able to send texts to friends and others.

The FCC has posted a document ( download PDF) listing the 59 emergency communications centers that had deployed text-to-911 as of May 9 in 16 states. Many on the list were ready last year; the state of Iowa is listed as having all its emergency communications centers allowing text-to-911 as early as August 2009.

There are more than 23,000 public safety communications centers in the U.S., but many are regional and not designated to take either 911 calls or texts. There are more than 6,000 Public Safety Answering Points, the FCC's designated name for a communications center that takes emergency calls.

Nearly all the emergency communications centers on the May 9 list are served by Verizon Wireless, while T-Mobile is listed as serving one county in New York and AT&T is listed as serving two centers in North Carolina and Vermont.

May 15 was the date that the four largest wireless providers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- voluntarily committed to make texting to 911 available in those areas where the local 911 center is prepared to receive the texts. The FCC said that delays in the text-to-911 service could be due to several factors, including coordination between phone companies, equipment vendors and state and local public safety agencies.

The agency doesn't post a timeline when more emergency communications centers will come online with text-to-911, but adds on its site that the service "is likely to become more widely available over time as wireless phone companies provide text-to-911 capability and 911 centers modernize their systems to accept text messages."

The FCC doesn't have the authority to issue rules regulating 911 centers and can't require those centers to accept text messages. But it is seeking public comment on a proposed rule that would require phone companies and some text message providers to begin transmitting text messages to 911 centers by the end of 2014.

Even when a text-to-911 message is sent, the FCC said most emergency personnel won't automatically know the texter's location, which means the location needs to be texted as well. Before Enhanced 911 calls (E911), all 911 calls weren't automatically associated with an address as they typically are now.

Police and other emergency responders often say they appreciate 911 voice calls because it's possible to learn more information about an emergency by voice than in a short text. Still, text is seen as a way for some people with disabilities to seek help or for others when a "voice call to 911 might otherwise be dangerous or impossible," the FCC said.

"But if you are able to make a voice call to 911, and it is safe to do so, you should always make a voice call to 911," the FCC reiterated.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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