According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 85 percent of American adults own a mobile phone, and 80 percent of those mobile phone owners use their phone to send and receive text messages. Yet the only way to contact emergency services in the event of a fire, health emergency, or criminal activity is still by dialing 9-1-1 and making a phone call.
In August of last year, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski announced a plan to bring not only texting, but photo, video, and data support to what he called the Next Generation 911 service within five to ten years.
Now, Genachowski has announced that the rollout will happen much faster, with major mobile operators AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile USA committed to implementing 911 texting by May 2014, with widespread deployment happening as soon as June 2013. Trials of text-to-911 are already underway, the FCC said in a statement.
"Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century – and today, we are one step closer towards that vital goal," Genachowski said in his announcement.
While the service is being phased in starting in 2013, all mobile operators have agreed to provide a "bounce back" service, whereby anyone texting 911 in an area where it's not yet supported will get a message back directing them to call instead. The "bounce back" service will be in place by July 2013.
The service is intended for those situations where text messaging has a benefit over making a call, rather than to replace the traditional 911 service wholesale. For instance, it will make it easier for people with speech and hearing impediments to request emergency services, and victims in dangerous situations will be able to alert the police without drawing attention to themselves.
The FCC hasn't said whether the roll out of photo, video, or data support is also being accelerated, or whether the 5 to 10 year timeline will hold.
In a speech to the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO) in August 2011, Genachowski talked about some of the possible health applications if video and picture messaging are supported.
"Imagine someone was in a car accident," he said at the time. "With NG911, somebody in the car could send pictures of injuries and the scene to 911, which EMTs could review in advance. Once on scene, EMTs could send critical information back to the hospital, including on-site scans and diagnostic information, increasing odds of recovery."
At the event last year, he also spoke about integrating the Next Generation system with remote patient monitoring technology in the future.
"If a patient wearing a 24-hour cardiac monitoring device experiences a cardiac event at home, the device could automatically send a wireless signal to the NG911 system to request aid, and also transmit the patient's location, identifying data and relevant medical information," he said.