The four largest U.S. wireless providers have agreed to accelerate the deployment of a feature that lets people send emergency text messages to 911 services.

Under the agreement, AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA Inc. will do “major deployments” of so-called text-to-911 in the U.S. next year, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced Thursday.

Why texting?

“Text-to-911 will provide consumers with enhanced access to emergency communications in situations where a voice call could endanger the caller, or a person with disabilities is unable to make a voice call,” the FCC says. “Text-to-911 will be a complement to, not a substitute for, voice calls to 911 services, and consumers should always make a voice call to 911 during an emergency if they can.”

The carriers also agreed to provide an automatic “bounce back” text message to notify senders if their text attempt failed because the new service is not yet available in that area.

The message will include instructions to the consumer to make a voice call.

“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 Genachowski. “Last year I announced a comprehensive plan to accelerate the transition to Next Generation 911, including text-to-911, and the FCC has acted to advance this effort.

The feature, which is to become available nationwide by May 15, 2014, will let most mobile users, including millions of people with hearing or speech disabilities, send emergency texts to 911 call centers, which are prepared to receive the messages, Genachowski said.

“I also called on the communications industry and public safety entities to work together to enable nationwide text-to-911 as quickly as possible, and I am pleased that the nation’s four largest wireless carriers and leading public safety organizations have responded with today’s commitment, which will save lives starting in 2013,” Genachowski added.

“This is good progress, but our work is not done. Next week the FCC will consider further actions to advance text-to-911 for all consumers. We will also take additional steps in this area next year, including closely monitoring carriers’ compliance with the commitments they have made today and addressing other aspects of Next Generation 911 such as enabling transmission of photos and videos to 9-1-1 centers. We are also working to strengthen the resiliency and reliability of the existing 911 system.”

Next week, the FCC will begin considering steps to ensure that other types of Internet-based message services offered by companies such as Facebook Inc. make text-to-911 available to consumers, the agency said.

(Bloomberg news contributed to this report.)