textingDuring Hurricane Sandy and the following clean-up efforts, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that New Yorkers would be able to send text messages to 311, a move meant to decongest the city’s phone lines and help responders prioritize requests.

Today the FCC has announced that all four major carriers – Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile – have signed on to take the same principle and apply it to 911, the US’ emergency phone number. “Major deployments” are expected to be shipped in 2013, with nationwide coverage scheduled for May 15, 2014.

“Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a release. He emphasized that this text-to-911 service is just one part of his proposed “next-generation 911″ (abbreviated as NG911), and that it should “complement” phone calls to the service, not replace them.

Once text-to-911 is deployed, the service could help those who aren’t physically able to make a phone call or who would be put in danger by trying to speak with an operator. It may also be useful for people who have no electricity and want to conserve the battery on their phones, as sending a text message requires far less battery power than making a phone call.

Genachowski called the text-to-911 implementation a good start, but said that the FCC will continue working towards his full NG911 vision. The FCC will work to make sure  all four carriers uphold their commitment to the initiative, and plans on working to enable the sending of videos and photos to emergency responders. (My condolences for all the people who will have to view “emergency” pictures of a concerned citizens’ naughty bits.)

It’s hard to find things to nitpick with today’s announcements. Would it be nice if text-to-911 were available sooner? Sure, but as Genachowski points out, the current, voice-dependent system is far from perfect, and that’s been built over the course of decades. Perhaps the weakest link will end up being the carriers – at times, managing these companies must feel like herding cats.

At the end of the day, however, this feels like a firm step in the right direction. 911, as Genachowski said, needs to conform to citizens’ methods of communication, and right now text messages are the way to go.