U.S. cellphone users should be able to send text messages to 911 as soon as 2013, and nearly everyone will by 2014, the Federal Communications Commission has announced.
AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon will launch the service in some parts of the U.S. in 2013, the FCC said. The wireless carriers have signed an agreement to make emergency texting available to more than 90 percent of American cellphone users by May 15, 2014.
The service should be a boon to people in situations where calling might be dangerous, and to people with speech and hearing disabilities, the FCC said.
Before the service is fully deployed, the FCC plans to set up a "bounce back" message so people who text 911 in areas where the service isn't ready will know their text didn't go through. The bounce message, which will instruct people to make a voice call to 911, should be ready nationwide by June 30, 2013.
The FCC has wanted a 911 texting system for a few years now.
In a 2010 press release, the agency referred to the shooting at Virginia Tech as a motivator. "During the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting, students and witnesses desperately tried to send texts to 9-1-1 that local dispatchers never received," the release said. "If these messages had gone through, first responders may have arrived on the scene faster with firsthand intelligence about the life-threatening situation that was unfolding."