(CNN) -- Most 911 centers can't receive text messages. But that doesn't always stop people from texting the familiar number in an emergency, not knowing their pleas for help won't be seen.
A new initiative announced Friday will finally bring the 20-year-old SMS texting technology to emergency centers across the country in the coming years.
The top four wireless carriers in the U.S. have agreed to speed up their efforts to support text-to-911 capabilities, making it available by May 15, 2014, according to a statement from the Federal Communications Commission released Friday.
"Access to 911 must catch up with how consumers communicate in the 21st century -- and today, we are one step closer towards that vital goal" said FCC chairman Julius Genachowsk.
Once the carriers are set up, local emergency response centers will still need the proper equipment, software and training, so the feature won't be available instantly. However, eventually the carriers and FCC hope to provide 90% of the population with text-to-911 features. The service will not support third-party texting apps or roaming users.
In the meantime, the carriers will implement a much-needed alert message warning anyone who sends a text to 911 that their message was not received, and that they should make a phone call instead. That auto-reply system will be up and running by June 30, 2013.
The carriers will handle support for texting until the national next-generation 911 service is completed in the next decade. Most 911 systems are managed locally, but the next-generation 911 project is a national push to update the systems to handle modern communications, including calls over the Internet, images and photos.
One-third of the estimated 240 million calls to 911 are from wireless lines. Current systems do support the modern technology -- for example, some can pinpoint what tower a call was routed through to determine a caller's location -- but SMS text support has been more difficult.