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Wireless Carriers Offer Text-to-911 Service (But Is Anybody Listening?)

Only a handful of local public safety organizations have adopted the system so far.

Vjeran Pavic

The nation’s four largest wireless carriers have put in place the technology to allow customers to send text messages requesting help in emergencies.

For the moment, only a handful of places have emergency call centers equipped to receive such 911 text messages. California and Texas, the nation’s two most populous states, are not among them.

The Federal Communications Commission has pushed for text-to-911 service, saying it could be a life saver for the 42 million Americans who are hearing-impaired or have a speech disability.

Public safety officials say placing an emergency phone call is preferable.

Sometimes, though, texting may be the best way to get help, as when cellular networks are congested, or when placing a voice call would endanger the caller — as in the case of a shooting or domestic violence.

Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade organization, said the major wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — met the FCC’s May 15 voluntary deadline to put the text-to-911 technology in place.

But consumers won’t be able to send emergency text messages until local public safety organizations do their part to deploy the service.

Anyone who tries to text 911 in an area where service is unavailable will receive an automatic bounce-back, alerting them to place an emergency call.

The California Office of Crisis Communications did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Josef said short messaging was never designed for instantaneous, emergency communications. Sometimes messages can arrive hours (or even days) after they’re sent.

The service is viewed as an interim measure, put in place until a more robust, next-generation 911 service can be developed that could support messaging, photos and potentially even video.

This article originally appeared on

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