Bring 999 Into ‘The Smartphone Generation’ Says IET

Jul 08, 2015

The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) is calling for changes to the emergency 999 service to reflect the digital age.

According to the organisation, the emergency services need to keep up with the ‘smartphone generation’ where more people are communicating by text or social media rather than making a voice call.

A report written by the Institute, Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age, sets the case for emergency services to keep pace with the increasing move away from landlines to smartphones and from voice to data.

The document claims that in a world where smartphones, text and social media are becoming the norm, creating a new cross-platform, data-based emergency service with a standard interface for consumers should be a priority.

It adds that embracing digital has the potential to save lives and also enable calls and messages to be better filtered in order to receive more appropriate and faster responses at a potentially lower cost.

“Communications have changed drastically since the ‘999’ service was designed in 1937 – so there is a critical need to update the service,” claimed chair of the IET’s Policy Panel Professor Will Stewart.

Ofcom figures show, for example, that 94% 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 added.

Government Support For Proposals

The report was launched at a meeting supported by the Cabinet Office and the IET is working with representatives from government, the emergency services, BT, Ofcom and the mobile phone industry to agree how best to work together to bring the emergency service into the digital age.

Superintendent Mark Nottage, who works on the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme at the Home Office, agrees with the ideas presented in the document.

“Many people, particularly young people, are using a range of social media applications to communicate and many rarely make voice calls in their daily lives,” Nottage claimed.

“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 added.

Overcoming Obstacles

The IET says that a data-based emergency service would allow people to text alerts via any appropriate app on a chosen easy-to-remember special number, such as 999 and these alerts would then be passed to the human emergency operator.

It claims the main engineering challenge of this system would be to set up priority routing of alerts to this special number in order to avoid delays at busy times and a workaround would need to be arrange in consultation with the main mobile and app-based text providers.

The Institute has also suggested there is an opportunity to improve the existing emergency service with the latest GPS technology available on smartphones.


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