The Federal Communications Commission voted to require mobile service providers and third-party messaging apps to allow users to send text messages to 911 on Friday.
The rules were approved by a 3-2 vote at the commission’s monthly open meeting, The Washington Post reports. Although the service currently has limited availability, the commission hopes that access will expand in the near future.
“Our first responsibility is to provide for the safety of Americans, and this is a step to continue to fulfill that responsibility,” Chairman Tom Wheeler said.
As noted in the FCC’s official statement on the ruling, text-to-911 access is especially beneficial for those with hearing or speaking impairments, or in situations where a voice call may place the caller in danger.
However, a number of obstacles not addressed by the ruling still stand in the way of nationwide access to the service, as noted by Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, both of whom voted against the measure.
Although the new rules force mobile carriers to support text-to-911, the larger problem lies with the 911 dispatchers. Currently, only approximately two percent of dispatchers are capable of receiving text messages. In light of this small number, Pai compared the rule to telling people to “dive in … when in fact there’s hardly any water in the pool.”
Location data is also a problem for the service. Currently, dispatchers will have little knowledge of the user’s location unless the user states it in the text.
The location probably is further compounded by the inclusion of third party app which send messages to other numbers through SMS technology – as opposed to those that send messages within the service itself. As O’Rielly points out, the new rules may force app developers to violate users’ security settings on order to transmit location data to dispatchers.
Mobile carriers and the affected messaging apps have until the end of the year to prepare to support text-to-911. From that point, if a dispatcher requests the service, carriers will have six months to deploy it in that area.