For those who are nonverbal, deaf or otherwise have difficulty communicating via traditional telephone calls, a new option to seek emergency help is on the way.

Starting this month, the nation’s four main wireless networks now have the capability to support text messages sent to 911.

The move is a significant step toward making the service available on a broader scale, advocates say. Text-to-911 is expected to be particularly meaningful to individuals with disabilities who may have difficulty hearing or speaking.

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Currently, it is possible to text 911 in communities in 16 states where emergency call centers are set up to receive and respond to the messages, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

This week, Vermont became the first to deploy the service statewide with all four major wireless carriers.

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile pledged in a voluntary agreement to accommodate text-to-911 on their networks by May 15. The FCC wants all text providers to offer the capability by the end of the year and the agency is encouraging 911 call centers to adopt the technology.

It is unclear, however, when texting 911 will be possible nationwide.

“Text-to-911 availability will ultimately depend on funding and the deployment of hardware, software and training programs at the nearly 6,000 911 centers across America, and progress will vary from one community to the next,” said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association.

Fontes said that even in places where texting is available, it is still preferable to call 911 if you can.

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