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Gallaudet University’s Technology Access Program (TAP) was recently recognized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for its work in developing text-to-911 capabilities which will be available nationwide by May 15, 2014, by the nation four largest wireless carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

Text-to-911 services allow people who are deaf and hard of hearing to access participating emergency service call centers by sending a text message to 911 in lieu of making a voice call or needing a telephone relay service. Direct access to 911 services for the deaf and hard of hearing community will serve to enhance emergency response and provide direct communication between first responders and deaf consumers.

At the moment, the text-to-911 services are voluntary as part of an agreement between the AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, the FCC, APCO International and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). The FCC has requested comments from the public about whether the agreement can serve as a blueprint for a possible federal mandate for such services.

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski acknowledged the work of several members of the deaf community, including TAP Director Dr. Christian Vogler, in the context of ongoing efforts to develop text-to-911 capabilities during the commission December 12 meeting in Washington, D.C. Chair Genachowski also mentions Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc., National Association of the Deaf, and NorCal Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Genachowski’s comments can be found here, at time code 48:32 and on.

This is a truly cooperative achievement of the entire deaf and hard of hearing community and advocacy groups and there have been many key players leading up to all this, said Dr. Vogler. While it might be time to celebrate a little, I also would like to emphasize that we must stay vigilant and make sure the wireless carriers keep up their end of the bargain.

During the time when the text-to-911 capability is being phased-in, the four carriers agreed to provide an automatic bounce back text message to notify people if their text to 911 was not delivered because the service is not yet available in their area. The message instructs the recipient to make a voice call to a 911 center. The four carriers will fully implement this bounce back capability across their networks by June 30, 2013.

The FCC said they will take additional action as necessary to ensure the public ability to reach 911 using text messaging. Additional action from all stakeholders will also be necessary to get emergency service call centers across the nation to participate in text-to-911. TAP continues to work with consumers, industry, the public safety community, and the FCC in educating the community about the benefits and limitations of text-to-911.

The Technology Access Program (TAP) conducts research related to communication technologies and services, with the goal of producing knowledge useful to industry, government, and deaf and hard of hearing consumers in the quest for equality in communications. The program provides education to Gallaudet students through coursework and mentored research projects related to TAP’s research mission.

Gallaudet University, federally chartered in 1864, is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English. Gallaudet maintains a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and prepares its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world.

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