MONTPELIER, VT - The four major U.S. wireless phone companies are providing emergency texting 911 service as of this month to any local government that wants it and has the capability to use it, a big step toward moving the nation's emergency dispatch system out of the voice-only technology that dates to the 1960s.
Local governments in 16 states are now using it, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and Vermont became the first in the country to offer the technology statewide Monday.
"This is a big deal," Brian Fontes, the chief executive officer of the Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association, said of the four major carriers offering text-to-911.
"It's been a long time -- years, decades -- since our nation's 911 systems have been advanced. They are pretty much still almost 100 percent voice-centric, 1960s technology."
Fontes said that 911 texting is part of a broader push to use technology to enhance the information that can be provided to emergency responders.
"In today's technology world where you and I and other people have smartphones that can do many different things simultaneously, it's important that we have the opportunity to ensure that our nation's 911 centers are equally equipped with technology."
Some professional sports teams allow fans to report unruly behavior inside stadiums through texting, while law enforcement have also started using text messaging during standoff negotiations.
Police have also embraced using social media to deliver information and to help in investigations.
The four major providers -- Sprint, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T -- voluntarily committed to providing the service by May 15. The FCC has required all service providers to offer it by the end of the year.
The text-to-911 service is now limited to text only -- photos, videos and location information will have to wait for the next generation of the technology.
Industry experts tell people to limit texts for help to circumstances when voice calls can't be made, such as for the deaf or hard of hearing or in domestic violence cases where people can't speak.
Black Hawk County, Iowa, became the first to use text 911 in June 2009, said Judy Flores, director of the consolidated communication center for Black Hawk County, located in Waterloo.
"It's worked great," Flores said, adding that they expect to expand the service within the next few weeks.
Fontes said he expected the use of text-to-911 would grow, but he can't say how fast. Vermont is one of the few states in the country with a statewide emergency 911 phone system, making statewide rollout easier.
While the number using text 911 is small --there have only been 34 legitimate 911 texts for help since Vermont started using the system, compared to 208,000 911 voice calls last year -- David Tucker, executive director of Vermont's Enhanced 911 board, notes that it has saved at least one life so far after dispatchers received a text about a suicide-by-hanging in progress.
"We were able to get a location for the person and it's my understanding the police broke down the door," Tucker said. "The person had already hung themselves. They cut him down and revived him."