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Need to call 911? Texting probably won't work

The Federal Communication Commission has been on a mission for the last year to modernize America's 911 emergency services network by allowing people to send text messages to the police rather than making voice calls.

Now that push is a step closer with last week's move the agency to require all mobile operators to support Text-to-911 by the end of the year. But only a little closer, it turns out because the vast majority of 911 dispatch centers won't be able to receive those text messages anytime soon.

The problem is that there is no nationwide plan to implement texting support at the nation's emergency dispatch centers. There are almost 7,000 of them, and they are managed at the local state and county level. Right now, less than 2 percent of dispatch centers support texting, which amounts to only around 100 locations around the U.S. that deliver end-to-end text support during emergencies.

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According to the FCC, there's some limited support in a handful of states, with Vermont and Maine having the distinction of 100 percent deployment. Unless you live in either of those states, though, you're far more likely to need 911 services than be able to text a request for help. New York and Texas for example, have text support in parts of a handful of counties, while Colorado is deployed just in the city of Aspen and tiny Pitkin County. Only 16 states in total offer any texting at all.

The four major carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint -- started supporting text-to-911 in May of this year (though in most cases those texts do not actually go anywhere). Impatient with the rest of the wireless industry's pace, the FCC has now mandated that all other carriers catch up by the end of the year. The decree also requires a number of popular texting apps to support 911 emergency texting as well.

That's not sitting well with some critics, including within the FCC. Ajit Pai, one of the agency's five commissioners, was highly critical of the decision in a dissenting opinion. He asserts that "The feel-good headlines following this decision will no doubt lead consumers to believe that they can now text 911." In reality, even after all major carriers and texting apps add 911 support, the vast majority of Americans will still have to make voice calls, which suggests the potential for widespread confusion.

How do you know if your locale supports 911? You can check the FCC website, which lists all locales with the capability, or you can simply send a text message. Thankfully, if your local dispatch center isn't yet equipped for texting, you'll get a text back informing you of the need to make a voice call to 911.

Moreover, the rules of texting support are likely to confuse. Phones that are "roaming" won't be able to text 911, for example, and phones operating in WiFi mode only won't work either. If you don't have a text plan, you can't text 911 (unlike voice calls, which always go through to 911 even if the phone has no voice plan). And while some texting apps are covered by the new FCC mandate, the highly popular WhatsApp is exempt.

The bottom line is that for the foreseeable future, only a few Americans will be able to text the police via 911. If you have an emergency, skip texting and just call. You can also read the FCC's own site for additional details about the service.

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