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Canadians with hearing impairments much register their phone number with their wireless service provider in order to be able to text message with 911 staff. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Canadians who have hearing or speech problems will soon be able to send text messages to 911 services.

Other Canadians, however, must continue to communicate with 911 services over the phone, says Canada's telecommunications regulator.

By Jan. 24, 2014, all telephone and wireless companies must upgrade their networks to support text messaging communication with Canadians who have hearing and speech impairments. The service may become available before then in areas where the upgrades are completed early.

"Services such as 911 are critical to the health and safety of all Canadians," said Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in a statement Thursday.

"This initiative is a perfect example of how technology can be used to improve access to 911 services for Canadians with disabilities."

Those who need to use the new 911 feature must:

  • Register their mobile phone number with their wireless service provider.
  • Ensure their mobile phone is compatible with the feature.

Users must still dial 911

In the case of an emergency, they will not be able to send a text message right away — first, they must dial 911 normally. The emergency call centre would be automatically notified that the conversation should proceed via text messaging.

The CRTC emphasized that text messages sent to "911" do not reach emergency services.

The CRTC conducted a trial of the new program in 2012 in Vancouver, Toronto, Ontario's Peel Region and Montreal. The regulator said that in 2014-15, it will conduct a study on the future of Canadian 911 services.