The good news is that the lengthy battle to upgrade the UK’s 999 calling system to incorporate new forms of communication finally seems to be making some progress after years of stalling. The bad news is that the process may yet be stymied by lack of leadership from Government.
‘No one in Government wants to step up to the plate and take charge,’ Geoff Naldrett, chief operating officer at British APCO, informed delegates at British APCO’s Manchester event in early April.
‘We have approached nine Government departments and agencies in all, but no one will take it up. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has it at the moment, but it is not the right place. However, we cannot move forward without a Government body to push it on,’ said Naldrett.
The aim of NextGen 999 is to enable the general public to contact 999 agencies using more than voice: texts, social media, mobile apps, photos and/or video; and to make it easier for 999 public safety answering points or PSAPs (BT in the UK) to pinpoint the location of calls from mobile phones.
Naldrett said that to enable this to happen the emergency services need access to IP systems in their control rooms – upgrades are required to their EISEC (Enhanced Information Service for Emergency Calls) systems – but not all police and fire brigades have this.
BT and the mobile network operators (MNOs) also need to make some adjustments to their technology. The cost is relatively minor, but BT can only do this when mandated by Ofcom, which in turn, needs to be instructed by Government to do so.
Despite the continued lack of leadership from the top, other aspects of the programme are advancing in the key work areas of: handsets – liaising with manufacturers to aid NextGen 999; eCall; telematics; NextGen 999 apps and certification; Golden Hour Portal; and technology upgrades.
A major reason for the urgent need to upgrade the UK’s emergency services call system is that 67% of 999 calls are now made from smartphones (around 65,000 calls per day) and just 33% from fixed line phones. It is easy for BT to get the address of a caller from a fixed line, but much more difficult to get an accurate geographic location fix from a mobile.
Stressed callers on mobiles often have difficulty in explaining where they are and mobile phones are designed to switch off everything, including GPS, when a 999 call is made to save battery life. Lack of accurate location data means some 36,000 critical incidents a year involve searches of 30+ minutes by emergency service responders with obvious implications in life threatening situations.
Work is being done with mobile phone manufacturers to provide an enhanced service when a 999 call is made (although a minimum battery life is required). The idea is that the phone actually activates GPS and Wi-Fi facilities for at least 20 seconds when 999 is dialled.
This will enable a much more accurate geo-location fix. A zero-rated SMS containing the caller’s location and other information is then sent to the PSAP (not visible on handset). Tests show that by using GPS a caller’s location can be fixed to within a 6m radius in rural areas, as opposed to a 4km radius when just triangulating the phone using mobile phone cell towers. In cities, this drops from a 195m radius to 22m.
Naldrett said that all the UK MNOs, the Home Office, police and BT are meeting regularly now. Handset providers are also starting to develop a sustainable 999 capability for inclusion in new smartphones and software releases.
HTC, for example, has handsets ready with network parameters adjusted and integration with EISEC has also been finalised. In the near future MNOs will require all new smartphones to have this capability.
BT is configuring its existing eSMS server to process the information contained in mobile phone location texts and is integrating this with the location feeds it sends to police, fire and ambulance.
The encouraging news is that a service will be launched in early summer, but emergency services need to check with their command and control suppliers as to whether they have the necessary systems to handle the facility.
Other work includes the future integration of the EU’s vehicle eCall system, which sends a 112/999 alert directly to a PSAP in the event of a crash. The UK Government is not keen on it, but it is mandated by the EU.
British APCO is also working hard on driving a 112/999 app accreditation process (see Wireless October 2013 for more on this). The aim is to provide a clear process for designers to develop 999 apps, get guidance from experts, have the apps thoroughly assessed and then accredited for use in the BT 999 system.