Bringing new technology to emergency calling

Progress in upgrading 999 call taking systems to incorporate advances in technology, such as SMS, social media, photos and video, is proving slow in the UK, as British APCO president Sue Lampard explains to James Atkinson

Bringing new technology to emergency calling

The UK general public now has a wide range of communications technology at its disposal. People can contact each other via their smartphones and other mobile devices using voice, SMS, email, messaging, social media, photographs and video clips.

However, the technology available to public safety agencies is lagging quite some way behind and 112/999 voice calls still make up the vast majority of contacts with the emergency services. In short, consumer technology has overtaken the emergency services’ ability to handle new media.

Nonetheless, a NextGen999 programme does indeed exist. The problem is that there has been no strategic leadership from anyone in Government to drive it forward. Efforts to modernise the way the general public can contact the emergency services using new technology have therefore made little progress over the last five years. 

The key discussion forum for change is the 999 Liaison Committee, which is chaired by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The 999 Liaison Committee brings together the emergency services - police, fire, ambulance and coastguard and their respective Government departments: Home Office, Department of Communities and Local Government, Department of Health and Department for Transport. 

The Cabinet Office also has representation, as does the communications regulator Ofcom. The 999 Liaison Committee also includes the 112/999 call handling agents or PSAPs (public safety answering points) – now mostly just BT (mobile operator Three handles calls from the railway infrastructure) and the public fixed and mobile telephone network operators. 

Leadership required

‘The problem is that although DCMS technically looks after 999, it is not really best placed to own it,’ explains British APCO president Sue Lampard. ‘The Cabinet Office understands the need to upgrade the 999 system to be able to handle new media, but it’s not their thing to do. The Department for Transport is in there because of the coastguard and its involvement with the EU eCall Directive.

‘The three lead Government departments for fire, police and ambulance all take the view that 999 is a shared service, so none of them should take sole ownership. So, they all have an interest, but no one has a strategic overview and no one is leading it,’ says Lampard.

BT needs to undertake some investment in its systems and network to ensure it can handle new media. Wireless understands the cost involved is modest (approximately £250,000 to update for eCall, for example), but BT needs to be commissioned by Government (via Ofcom) to make the necessary upgrades to its systems. 

Ofcom’s role

Ofcom will not do this until instructed to by Government. However, as previously noted, no one in Government is taking the lead on the NextGen999 programme, so Ofcom has received no such instruction. Hence, the current lack of progress.

John Medland, 999/112 policy manager at BT, who gave presentations on NextGen999 at the British APCO annual conference and exhibition in 2012 and again in 2013 to an audience of emergency service personal and wireless industry providers, highlighted this current impasse and expressed some frustration at how to find a way forward. 

Following his presentation in April this year, Lampard and others at B-APCO have been attempting to act as an honest broker and are looking for ways to break the deadlock. Lampard, who has since joined the 999 Liaison Committee, reports that there has been some progress recently with a number of different avenues being pursued. 

One suggestion is that the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme (JESIP) – set up in November 2012 with a two-year remit to improve interoperability between the emergency services - might take the lead. JESIP has declined initially, but Wireless understands it may be approached again.

BT 999 app

In the meantime, BT’s John Medland has been looking at ways to jump start the use of new technology for contacting the emergency services. The original idea started as a smartphone app – push the 999 app and it automatically dials the emergency services. 

However, this just established a voice connection and BT has moved on to develop something that will allow data streaming.

As Medland pointed out at his B-APCO presentation in April and as Lampard reiterates, one major problem in dialling 999 from a mobile is that many handsets are designed to lock down apps including the location GPS. The manufacturers’ concern was that if you are dialling 999, you are probably in trouble and all the power of the phone needs to be directed at dialling 999. 

Medland is working with handset manufacturers to find the best way to overcome this problem and one major handset maker has said it is interested in piloting the app which will allow GPS to remain active when dialling 999, so location information can be automatically transmitted to BT and then on to the emergency services. 

Third party apps

But as Lampard points out, there are a number of other people and organisations working on ways to transmit information to the emergency services. One such example is the RealRider motorcycle safety app launched earlier this year. 

The app uses REALsafe software, whereby a GPS route tracker employs the accelerometer, gyro and GPS technology in the rider’s smartphone and applies algorithms to analyse changes in the smartphone’s behaviour during a crash to detect whether the rider has parted company with his bike. 

Even if the rider is unconscious and unable to use the phone it will send his location, contact number and other vital information (eventually this might include patient record details such as allergies) to the ambulance service. 

‘We want to be able to link apps like RealRider directly into the 999 system,’ says Lampard, following a meeting with the app developers and B-APCO in May this year. ‘We met up with North East Ambulance Service and RealRider and came up with a proposed process for linking it up. It is in the very early stages at the moment.’

App accreditation

However, Lampard is keen to point out that these kinds of apps cannot just be linked into the 999 system without a thorough accreditation process first. ‘This has to have a number of stages,’ says Lampard. ‘A developer with a proposed app needs to approach B-APCO, one of the emergency services or a government department first. The proposal is that B-APCO would work with them to get the ball rolling. 

‘We will look at what they are trying to achieve and if we think it is a good idea, we will then put them in touch with someone appropriate in the emergency services - a sponsor for the app. Then the product will go through a review process with emergency service operations and technical people looking at the app.’

Lampard continues: ‘If they say it’s good the app will go on to a wider feature testing programme, which will test its resilience and examine the credibility of the company or people behind it and so on. Only when it has passed all of that will it be linked to 999 systems. Every app will then have its accreditation reviewed and renewed annually.’ 

Lampard says that the accreditation proposal seems to have gone down well with the emergency services and their sponsoring Government departments. ‘The Department of Health and others are regularly getting submissions for this kind of thing now, so it looks like B-APCO may be in a position to run an accreditation scheme on a minimal profit/cost covering basis.’

Control room upgrades

She adds: ‘The aim is to use existing technology and processes used for vehicle telematics, which provide basic location and vehicle identity information streamed to BT. BT then makes a data dump into the appropriate enhanced information service for emergency calls (EISEC) system at the relevant emergency service.

‘But as control rooms develop and command and control data technology improves we should be able to link more sophisticated data rich information via the EISEC. For example, the third party commercial provider that manages the vehicle telematics on behalf of the manufacturer may be able to pass on information to inform the emergency services that, for example: the vehicle is upside down; two airbags in the front have been deployed; or even establish a video link perhaps.’

Lampard points out that the UK has a big advantage over many countries in that it has just one main PSAP – BT, so all information is routed through one provider. This makes it much easier for the 112/999 system to link to new technologies such as vehicle telematics systems. BT can screen the information, just as it does voice calls, and pass it on if relevant. 

EU eCall 

The EU eCall Directive also plays a part here (see box below). This mandates that all new cars (although old ones can already be retrofitted very cheaply) must have an in-vehicle telematics system that automatically triggers a 112/999 voice and data call to the emergency services in the event of a crash. The vehicle’s location and ID are transferred in a short burst at the beginning of the call. 

More of a headache currently is how to distribute data to and between the emergency services and other first and potentially second responders. Ideally, whichever service gets the information would simply push a button and automatically populate the command and control systems of the other first responders. 

MAIT programme

At the moment, it is handled through phone calls or in some places point-to-point data connections between agencies. However, the MAIT (multi-agency incident data transfer) programme is addressing the issue, although it is expected to progress one step at a time to ensure legacy systems can cope and costs are kept at a sensible level. BAPCO is working with the CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) on this programme (see Wireless, May 2013, for more on MAIT).

In terms of data transfer, there has to be a way to get information from the smartphone app or the vehicle telematics company into BT and from there to the command and control centres of the emergency services. Lampard notes that all the ambulance trusts have EISEC, but not every police and fire service does and this lack needs to be addressed quickly if progress is to be made.

Lampard concludes: ‘The key thing we need to move forward is to establish a strategic lead and governmental ownership. There could be a real opportunity for the UK to lead the world in this as no one else has a single PSAP like BT and once app technology and vehicle telematics are seamlessly linked – the world of contact with emergency services could look very different!’


EU eCall Directive: current status

The UK is way behind most of its EU partners when it comes to progressing the EU eCall Directive, according to Andy Rooke of ERTICO ITS-Europe, who is working on the HeERO (Harmonised eCall European Pilot) Pan European eCall Solution 1 and 2 programmes. 

The programme is testing the key elements of eCall: defined standards; in-vehicle systems; readiness of mobile network operators; PSAP upgrades; and continuity of service across all EU member states.

Rooke says there are two key sets of legislation progressing at the moment. One forces EU member states to make their PSAPs eCall compliant by adopting a common specification by the end of 2012. The next way-point on this is 23 October 2013 when all member states must report to DG MOVE (EC Directorates-General Mobility and Transport) on how they have progressed in getting PSAPs and mobile networks eCAll ready.

The next significant bit of legislation came in on 13 June 2013, which was an amendment of type approval of all M1 (cars up to 8 seats) and N1 (light goods vehicles up to3,500Kg) type vehicles. 

Rooke explains: ‘This basically says that by 1 October 2015 all new types of vehicle in the M1 and NI categories will be fitted with pan-European eCall dialling 112 and that includes where you have third party provided telematic services, such as those already developed by car manufacturers like Peugeot-Citroen, BMW and Volvo.’

The initial eCall involves sending a burst of information at the start of the call to the PSAP giving the crashed vehicle’s location and ID. But potentially a much richer stream of data is available giving far more information on the state the vehicle is in. 

Rooke says: ‘The question is how does the PSAP deal with that data and then how do you move it around to the emergency services and potentially other responders?’

He notes that countries like The Netherlands are streets ahead of the UK in developing eCall. A far cry from the current state of play in the UK. ‘We are in a mess,’ says Rooke. 

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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