Update 999 services for smartphone generation says report

The IET has called for radical changes to be made to the emergency services in the UK to allow people to use smartphones in an emergency.

Emergency services should create a cross-platform, data-based system to filter reports and deploy responders, the IET says in its report, called ‘Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age’. Smartphone technology should be used to allow texting 999 in an emergency rather than calling the number, as well as apps to send alerts.

It said such a move may enable calls and messages to be filtered to receive faster responses that could be life-saving and probably at lower cost. The report also said the emergency services need to keep up with the changes of the digital age, where more people, especially younger generations, are communicating via text and social media.

Professor Will Stewart, chair of the IET’s communications policy panel, said communications have changed drastically since the 999 service was designed in 1937 and there was a critical need to update the service.

“Ofcom figures show that 94 per cent of communications from 12-15 year olds is text based. Given that young people are statistically more likely to be victims of crime or accidents, it is a concern that making a voice call to contact the emergency services is not something that would feel natural to them,” he said.

He added: “A girl alone in a mini cab who becomes worried about her personal safety might feel unable to make a call on her mobile phone, but could send a text or alert someone over social media.

“And in the case of certain crimes, such as abduction or a break-in, a silent text or app-based alarm system would be more appropriate and instinctive than the current voice-based one for everybody, irrespective of their age.”

Stewart said much of the technology required to update 999 services was already available, but it would first have to be agreed by the main mobile and app-based text providers. A service aimed primarily at deaf people and those with speech difficulties already exists, but it is registration-based.

The new system envisaged by the IET would allow people to text alerts via any appropriate app on a chosen easy-to-remember special number, such as 999. These alerts would then be passed to the human emergency operator. However, setting up priority routing alerts to this special number in order to avoid delays at busy times could prove challenging.

The report also said existing emergency services could be improved by using the latest GPS technology available on smartphones. An automatic software system could scan texts and pass on any known user information such as approximate handset location to the call handler.

Superintendent Mark Nottage, from the emergency services mobile communication programme at the Home Office, said the emergency services needed to reflect a world where many people rarely make voice calls in their daily lives.

“This means that we need to adapt and be responsive to ensure that when people need to contact the emergency services or other public services they can quickly access the right information and the most appropriate service first time and in the way that they choose and are familiar with,” he said.

Contacting emergency services in the digital age

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